YSU's Thomas finds role with Red Sox


By Joe Scalzo

scalzo@vindy.com

Red Sox reliever Justin Thomas has a 5-month-old daughter and a tenuous hold on his spot in the Boston bullpen.

He’s not losing sleep over either one.

Thomas, a former Horizon League pitcher of the year at Youngstown State, signed a minor league with the Red Sox last November after spending all of 2011 with the Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates’ Triple-A team.

After going 8-2 with a 3.89 ERA in Indianapolis, Thomas and his agent looked at different major league rosters in the offseason, counted the number of left-handed relievers on each team and decided Boston was his best bet to make the majors.

“I put in a really good season last year in Triple-A but they [the Pirates] had a lot of left-handed pitchers, so there wasn’t an opportunity there,” said Thomas, speaking by phone from Boston earlier on Thursday’s off-day. “I played winter ball and, knowing the Red Sox organization, I knew I had a legitimate chance to make the team if I pitched well enough.

“In spring training, I threw the ball really well and they liked what they saw.”

Around the same time he signed with Boston, his wife, Theresa, had a daughter, Ella. They live in Dalton in the offseason, near Theresa’s family in Massillon.

“She’s awfully good,” Thomas said of Ella. “She sleeps through the night, wakes up between 5 and 7 to eat, then goes back to sleep through 8 or 9 in the morning.

“We get a lot of good sleep.”

Thomas was still on the bubble when spring training ended — he had to pack up his Florida apartment and ship everything to Boston not knowing whether he was on the team — but manager Bobby Valentine told him they were 99.9 percent sure he’d made it.

On April 4, it became official.

“It’s great to make an opening day roster because I’ve never done that before,” said Thomas, who pitched briefly in the majors with Seattle in 2008 and Pittsburgh in 2010. “I know anything can happen — there’s guys on the disabled list and they’re going to be activated sooner or later — but I’m just taking the opportunity and doing the best I can with it.

“Anytime you’re not in the major leagues, you’re trying to get there. And anytime you’re in the major leagues, you’re striving to stay. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that with [roster] numbers and different stuff that happens, but you’ve just got to keep plugging away every day.”

Thomas (6-3, 215) pitched at YSU from 2003-2005, earning first team all-conference honors his last two years while helping the Penguins make their first (and only) appearance in the College World Series in 2004.

“I had three great years there,” said Thomas, whose wife was an education major at YSU. “A lot of great memories, a lot of great games. I came in with a really good class and we pushed each other.

“Coach [Mike] Florak made sure, no matter what, we worked our butts off. When it came Friday or Saturday, we were ready to go. And I think because we worked so hard on the field, it brought us together off the field.”

Thomas was a third-round pick of the Mariners in 2005 and advanced quickly through the minors, making his major league debut on Sept. 1, 2008. He went 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in eight games with Seattle, then spent the 2009 season at Triple-A Tacoma before signing with the Pirates. He went 0-1 with a 6.23 ERA in 12 games with Pittsburgh in 2010, spending the rest of the season in Indianapolis.

He’s back in the bigs, in part, because the Red Sox are carrying 13 pitchers — one more than usual. He’s pitched 11/3 innings this season, giving up a run on two hits with a walk and a strikeout.

“You just go to work and do what you can do,” he said. “One thing people always say in my line of work is, you just control the controllable.

“When someone gets healthy, somebody has to go to the minors, whether it’s a position player or a pitcher or a catcher, and that’s just the nature of the beast. For now, I just kind of enjoy it while I’m there and take it day by day.”

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