Thompson rising: Rookie K's 11 Nats in win

June 27th, 2021

MIAMI -- When Marlins right-hander executed a high four-seamer that Gerardo Parra swung through to end the sixth, the rookie slapped his glove in celebration.

Thompson struck out a career-high 11 batters across six innings, while hit the go-ahead homer in the fifth in a 3-2 win over the Nationals on Saturday at loanDepot park. Miami improved to 3-1 when wearing its City Connect uniform.

The 27-year-old Thompson continues to impress through four big league starts, posting a 2.00 ERA. The last time a Marlins pitcher recorded 11 or more strikeouts in a game was on May 7, 2019 (Caleb Smith).

"Being able to give my team a winning opportunity is all I'm really trying to do," Thompson said. "As long as I can keep going and keep us in a good spot to win a ballgame, then that's really important for me. Hopefully I can continue to go longer in the games, so six innings can kind of be normal. Hopefully I can keep moving forward from there, and as long as we're in a winning situation."

Though Thompson entered Saturday with the third-lowest batting average against (.095) on cutters among MLB pitchers in 2021, he utilized his entire five-pitch mix in his 91-pitch outing. Seven of his 11 strikeouts came on the curveball, and he recorded at least one K on four of his five offerings. Thompson's ability to get his cutter over east to west pairs well with his curveball, which travels north to south. Batters need to cover the entire zone.

“I think he did a decent job of going from cutter to curveball,” said Nats first baseman Josh Bell, who went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. “Pretty similar locations on where he started those pitches, and then the curveball would just drop out of the zone. I feel like he wasn’t afraid to use his second and third pitch in any count, which makes guys deceptive. I feel like he did a good job pounding the zone for the most part, getting ahead of guys.”

The Marlins signed Thompson, who spent his first six seasons in the White Sox system, to a Minor League deal with an invitation to Spring Training on Nov. 23. According to Marlins director of pro scouting Hadi Raad, Thompson was one of the organization's top Minor League free-agent targets to call on Day 1 based on a blend of scouting and analytics. When he signed, it was as a reliever.

But when starters were getting injured at the Major League level, Minor League pitching coordinator Scott Aldred identified Thompson as a possible starter. He was one through 2017 at the Class A Advanced level. Prior to his callup on June 7, Thompson had a 6.60 ERA in eight relief appearances at Triple-A Jacksonville. During that time, he was building up his pitch count. Outside of their Big 3 of Sandy Alcantara, Pablo López and Trevor Rogers, the Marlins have used seven starters (non-openers) to try and fill in for Sixto Sánchez and Elieser Hernandez.

"We were looking for starter depth to backfill at AAA," Raad wrote in a text. "Scott had the idea that we might have one option already in house, and that's when the transition started. We slowly lengthened out Thompson to provide innings, with an eventual move to the rotation in mind. Scott saw that he had the pure stuff and strike-throwing capability to start, so he was in the process of being lengthened out."

Thompson’s progression as a starter is as follows:

June 7 vs. Red Sox at Fenway Park: 3 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, BB, K, 55 pitches (Loss)

June 12 vs. Braves: 5 IP, 4 H, 6 K, 66 pitches (Win)

June 20 vs. Cubs at Wrigley Field: 4 IP, R, 3 BB, 7 K, 73 pitches (Loss)

Saturday vs. Nationals: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, HBP, 11 K, 91 pitches (Win)

Marlins manager Don Mattingly recalls Thompson being an arm he was intrigued by during Spring Training based on his strike-throwing capability and stuff. At camp, he made seven relief appearances, giving up one run in 5 1/3 innings.

“It's like, ‘How does this guy get away from teams?’” Mattingly recalled. “I liked his stuff, but you never know where that goes, too, after Spring Training. Sometimes those guys go to Triple-A and you never see them again. Zach, I think, started a little slow, and then kind of got it going. He's been impressive, so hopefully this just keeps going.”