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LOUISVILLE — Micheal Thomas gets out of the batting cage Thursday at Jim Patterson Stadium with a disgusted look on his face. The University of Kentucky senior catcher missed on two swings and didn’t make solid contact on the others.
After a better showing the second time through, Thomas starts spraying the ball around the field, hitting it harder with every swing. One of the last pitches he sees lands in the concession area behind the left-field fence.
Thomas’ batting practice session could describe his career since arriving at Kentucky as a walk-on five years ago. He has gone from a player with no guarantees of playing time to the starting catcher the last two years.
“It definitely feels like it’s been a haul,” Thomas said. “I still remember when I got the phone call from Coach (Brad) Bohannon before the 5th Region Tournament game my senior year. I think I was late that day getting to the bus.
“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get to where I am,” he added. “What I’ve sacrificed has been worth it. This is something I didn’t want to give up, so I’ve done what I’ve had to do to make it happen.”
Thomas’ perseverance has paid off. Not only is he enjoying the best season of his Kentucky career, but the Wildcats reached the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.
Kentucky (35-23) closed the season strong, winning eight of its last 14, including three games before falling to Florida, 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Wildcats meet Kansas (34-24) at 2 p.m. today at Jim Patterson Stadium.
“Any time you play on a team you’re satisfied in different ways,” Thomas said. “This year has been satisfying for a variety of reasons. Everyone doubted us and then we came out and put together a great season. It makes it better with what I’ve gone through to make it this far.”
How far Thomas has come is a story of dedication, hard work and an undeniable passion for the game, which didn’t go away though he was given nothing more than a roster spot. He had a full academic scholarship to go to Kentucky and the same option at Louisville.
When he met with the Kentucky coaching staff his senior year at Elizabethtown, Thomas was told he would be the 36th player on the roster and would redshirt. That meant he was a part of the team, but there was no chance to play. But that’s all Thomas wanted — an opportunity.
“There were no promises of playing time,” Thomas said. “Definitely you want to play, but I just wanted a chance.”
Thomas spent his redshirt season as the bullpen catcher and then the next two years he was used sparingly, playing in 28 games and getting 26 at-bats.
Despite the lack of playing time, Thomas never once considered walking away from the game he grew up playing. He didn’t want to give up on his dream, knowing if he did he would regret it one day.
Thomas instead immersed himself in the game. He caught bullpen sessions, charted pitches and asked questions of other catchers or coaches to try to make himself better if the opportunity of playing time came one day.
That chance came last season after Kentucky lost its top two catchers — Luke Maile to the draft and Michael Williams to graduation. This was Thomas’ shot to show the coaching staff he could not only play the position but succeed in it.
After winning the starting job last season, Thomas put together a solid season — offensively and defensively. He batted ,239 with three doubles and three homers. He scored 23 runs and drove in 21. Behind the plate, he threw out 12-of-34 would-be base stealers and also picked off two base runners.
Thomas, who spent the offseason between his sophomore and junior season in the New England Collegiate Baseball League, played in the Alaska Summer League last summer where he was named an All-Star.
“I spent the summer in Alaska and that was a big change of pace, but a good one,” Thomas said. “I had awesome coaches. I was the old guy on the team, but they worked with me. They had a huge influence on me. They helped make me a better player. They helped me work through the failures to become successful.”
That success has carried over to his final season.
Thomas has emerged as one of the top catchers in the SEC, which is loaded with talent. He was named to the Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year midseason watch list, given to the top college backstop, and watch list for the Gregg Olson Award, which is given to the “Breakout Player of the Year.”
“It’s such an honor to be mentioned for awards,” Thomas said. “It’s never expected. I’ve been surrounded by great people and all the hard work has paid off. Even to be considered is pretty awesome.”
It’s not surprising to those who coached Thomas that he has found success.
“It goes to show you how much hard work pays off,” said Elizabethtown coach Don Pitts, who started Thomas midway through his freshman year of high school. “He worked really hard to get his body SEC ready. From his days at E’town, we knew Micheal was talented, very smart and hard working. Why wouldn’t you take a chance on a guy like that? I doubt there’s many better stories in college baseball than his.”
Those around the Kentucky program who watched Thomas progress throughout his career couldn’t agree more with Pitts.
“Micheal is what college baseball is all about,” Kentucky catching coordinator Keith Vorhoff said. “In my 12 years coaching, I haven’t come across a better story. Micheal was a true walk-on in our program and has worked incredibly hard to improve his body, athleticism and skills. He sat for three years, waited his turn, took advantage of every opportunity and brings a legitimate blue-collar personality to our team that makes everyone in the program better (including coaches and staff).”
Thomas is batting .310 with 10 doubles, one triple and eight homers, which he would have said there’s no shot he hits that many before the season began. He has 44 RBIs to go along with 45 runs. His slugging percentage (.488) is nearly 150 points higher than last season and his on-base percentage (.402) is almost 50 points higher.
Behind the plate, Thomas has thrown out 15-of-45 would-be base stealers and he has picked off four base runners.
His senior season at Kentucky mirrors his final year at Elizabethtown in several ways. Always known for his great defense, Thomas broke out with the bat his final year with the Panthers to help them win the 2009 region championship.
“My mom (Judie) said the same thing the other day about waiting to hit in my senior year,” Thomas said. “I’ve had that thought as well. Maybe it’s destiny. I’ve worked on everything to get to where I am, and now that I’ve had some success, hopefully it will roll on.”
Thomas has aspirations of playing professional baseball as the Major League draft is next week. He has talked to a few teams and filled out questionnaires for a dozen teams. Thomas said that’s the next step to fulfill his dream.
Considering all he has done already to get to this point, it’s hard to imagine Thomas not achieving what has been in his heart since he began playing the game.
“Definitely that’s the ultimate dream,” Thomas said. “I came here without any promises. I didn’t have any production for three years and then I get an opportunity. Any opportunity I’ve had is because of hard work. I’m surrounded by a great group of guys and I’m honored they look at me and see me as a leader. This is what I’ve always wanted and why I’ve sacrificed so much. It’s been an incredible ride.”
Chuck Jones can be reached at 270-505-1759 or email@example.com.