PHILADELPHIA -- The game was still in its infancy. Fans were still filing into their seats. The first inning had yet to end, and Zach Thompson was warming up.
Bryse Wilson, Friday’s starter, lasted just one inning. Manager Derek Shelton needed someone to provide length, to save the rest of the bullpen, to keep the game close. Thompson checked all those boxes, allowing two runs (one earned) across five innings of relief as the Pirates lost to the Phillies, 7-4, at Citizens Bank Park.
“He did a good job,” Shelton said. “He came in, was extremely efficient. Was able to go through their lineup multiple times, executed pitches. It’s probably about as good as we’ve seen him throw.”
The bullpen seats had yet to warm when the phone rang. Shelton needed Thompson’s services far earlier than desired.
The Phillies didn’t just score four runs in the first inning off Wilson, but forced the right-hander to throw 43 pitches. Alec Bohm, in particular, made him throw 11 pitches in an at-bat that ended in a single. Given that laborious first frame, Shelton opted to end Wilson’s night young.
“That’s kind of part of it. You just get ready for whatever situation you need to be in,” Thompson said. “I was ready to go.”
Philadelphia didn’t pull punches against Thompson. Kyle Schwarber doubled to begin the second inning, then Rhys Hoskins followed up with a single to bring him home. The Phillies brought home another run when shortstop Kevin Newman misplayed J.T. Realmuto’s potential inning-ending grounder, allowing Hoskins to score. Thompson needed 21 pitches before returning to the dugout. From there, he locked in.
The rest of the evening, Thompson allowed just two hits -- a single in the third and a single in the fourth. He retired the final eight batters he faced, striking out Hoskins swinging with a curveball to put the stamp on the longest relief outing of his career. On the subject of the curveball, Thompson possessed great feel of that pitch all evening long, generating a career-high nine whiffs with the bender.
“It’s been something I’ve been relying on a little bit more lately,” Thompson said. “I’ve been able to control it a little bit more. Throw it down for strikeouts, or be able to throw it in the zone for a get-me-over strike.”
These last couple weeks have been a bit tumultuous for Thompson. On July 14, Thompson’s ERA stood at 4.09. One month and one week later, on Aug. 21, Thompson’s ERA stood at 5.51. In his past seven outings, a stretch that includes a relief appearance, Thompson allowed 29 runs in 29 1/3 innings, a contrast to how well he pitched for most of the summer.
Thompson had been a mainstay in the Pirates’ rotation the entire season. He pitched an inning of relief on May 4 on the backend of a doubleheader, but that outing was the only deviation. Now, Thompson occupies a bit of a hybrid role -- not fully a starter, but not fully a reliever.
“I think we could see him used in a bunch of roles,” Shelton said after Thompson’s relief outing on Aug. 18. “Today was the first time. That's not to say we won't see him start again probably in the near future, but I think there's a chance he could transition into maybe that hybrid role.”
“I said this in spring: whatever they want me to do, I’m here for it,” Thompson said. “If that's [pitching in the] bullpen, starting, whatever they want, I'm here for it.”
Thompson’s role will likely continue to be malleable in the coming weeks. While the right-hander expressed a willingness to pitch in any role, he also noted that he would love to start. Should he continue to pitch well, he might find himself back in the rotation.
“[This outing] was something I definitely needed and something I can use going forward and look back on this game and be able to build off of it and hopefully continue this for the rest of the season,” Thompson said.