PITTSBURGH — Zach Thompson can shove when he’s healthy, too.
Thompson flirted with a no-hitter in the Pirates’ 3-1 win over the Reds on Saturday at PNC Park, holding Cincinnati hitless for 5 2/3 innings before allowing his first knock of the night and “settling” for six shutout frames. Unlike his Mother’s Day outing at Great American Ball Park just a few days ago, one in which he could barely stand after five scoreless innings, he won’t be needing an IV and a bundle of electrolytes.
“When I went to tell him he was done, I was like, ‘You’re not gonna pass out going up the tunnel and get an IV, are you?’” said manager Derek Shelton. “He threw the ball well.”
“No IVs today,” Thompson laughed. “I was able to walk, and we’re good to go.”
This wasn’t Thompson’s first brush with a no-hitter. Last season, Thompson was lifted after pitching four no-hit innings for the Marlins against the Cubs, striking out seven, walking three and hitting one. Despite not giving up a hit, Thompson got dinged for the loss, allowing an unearned run as Miami was shut out. Tough luck.
“That was a fun one, too,” Thompson said.
Brandon Drury ended the fun with two outs in the sixth inning, lining a clean single into right field. The home crowd, cognizant of Thompson’s flirtation with history, applauded their starter in admiration. While Pirates fans knew what was unfolding, Thompson was wondering why his own fans were clapping for another team.
“When it landed, everyone started cheering, and I was like, ‘Why are we cheering for someone else getting a hit?’” Thompson said. “And then I looked out and saw there was a one [in the hit column] and was like, ‘Huh.’”
Thompson gave the fans more to clap about shortly after, getting Tommy Pham to fly out. He ended the outing on his own terms, something he’s done more often in recent weeks. With the six scoreless innings Saturday, Thompson has now thrown 12 consecutive scoreless innings — a streak which began with a cameo out of the bullpen.
Thompson’s first appearance in May came in a relief appearance against the Tigers, his first time out of the bullpen this season. The right-hander is plenty familiar with bullpen life; of his 26 appearances last season, 12 were as a reliever. He threw up a much-needed zero in an outing that served as a mental recalibration of sorts.
“It’s a little bit of a reset, being able to go out there and throw for one inning and then be done,” Thompson said. “It was a confidence booster that I think I needed. Then, everything got on track from there.”
Back in the rotation against the Reds on Sunday, Thompson put up five more zeros. It was a gutsy performance on a day when he was severely under the weather, so much so that the Pirates were considering other options. Include this most recent outing with that, and Thompson is having himself a month, mainly at Cincinnati’s expense.
“He makes pitches with good movement,” said Reds manager David Bell. “We had a tough time with him. We were able to get one hit off of him. You got to give him credit. It was an outstanding start.”
Entering May, Thompson had a 10.05 ERA and 6.97 FIP. Walks (5.65 BB/9) and home runs (2.51 HR/9) were his kryptonite. There was also the element of plain ol’ bad luck.
In April, Thompson generated an average exit velocity of 88.6 mph, a total that would currently rank in the top half of all qualified pitchers. That weak contact wasn’t always rewarded. In the historically-bad 21-0 loss to the Cubs, for example, Thompson generated an average exit velocity of 85.0 mph, but ended up on the hook for nine runs (four earned).
This month has seen a change in fortune. Walks are down (3 BB/9). Home runs, of course, are non-existent. He’s getting even softer contact (85.6 mph), but now, he’s seeing results. Three appearances into May, Thompson is down to a 5.47 ERA and 5.03 FIP. There’s still work to be done, but he’s trending in the right direction.
“It’s nice to see it work,” Thompson said. “I think the start against the Cubs, everything was just, it’s as [bad] of a look as you can possibly have. So now that it’s actually working out, getting soft contact where I need it to go, it’s nice to have.”