A major-league draft pick last summer, Zack Thompson could have signed a lucrative contract and been playing professional baseball this season.
Instead, he decided to be a Kentucky Wildcat, and that’s a decision likely to pay off for UK over the next three years.
Thompson made his first home start Wednesday, striking out seven and surrendering just one earned run in the Cats’ 17-2 victory over Western Kentucky.
The Tampa Bay Rays selected Thompson in the 11th round of last year’s MLB Draft. He was actually projected to go much higher, but a reported high asking price and a known desire to play college baseball resulted in him dropping a few rounds.
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Thompson declined to disclose what the final number was in his negotiation with the Rays — “I don’t know if I can tell you that,” the freshman said with a smile — but he did say he feels like he made the right choice.
At UK, the 6-foot-2 left-hander from Selma, Ind., will get to face high-level college hitters for three seasons while learning from Wildcats assistant coach Jim Belanger, who groomed several MLB draft picks over the past four seasons at Maryland.
“I just felt like college was the best fit for me,” Thompson said. “I’ll be able to develop here. I know Belanger does a really good job with pitchers. Every pitcher he’s ever had has improved his draft stock. And there’s no other atmosphere like college baseball. I’m not going to see this at the next level.”
Thompson retired his first two batters before hitting WKU’s Thomas Peter with a pitch and walking the next two Hilltoppers to load the bases in the first inning. He got out of that jam and didn’t give up an earned run until the top of the sixth inning. By that time, UK was leading 12-1.
Thompson struck out five of the last six batters he faced — the final two looking.
“It was great to throw at home, finally, and get the first win under my belt,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to have plenty of run support today. That’s huge. It’s way easier to settle in when you have a 15-run lead.”
The Cats, who defeated Eastern Kentucky 12-0 on Tuesday, scored 10 runs in the first two innings against the Toppers.
Junior second baseman Riley Mahan was 3-for-6 with two doubles and had four RBI for the second straight night. Junior first baseman Evan White was 3-for-4 with a double and a homer, and he’s now 10-for-14 on the season. Senior center fielder Marcus Carson went 3-for-5, a single short of the cycle.
And Thompson kept dealing on the mound.
The lefty — known for his fastball in high school — had that pitch sitting at 91-93 mph. He also showed an impressive changeup and threw some breaking balls for strikes, important pitches as he continues to develop.
“I thought he threw well,” said UK Coach Nick Mingione. “For a freshman — it’s his second start ever — the guy continues to do a good job for us. He’s special.
“His changeup has always been a good pitch. And his curveball has really come a long way. He’s made some guys take some funny swings — and some funny takes. You don’t want hitters comfortable, and he has the ability to do that.”
UC-Santa Barbara at Kentucky
4 p.m. Friday (SEC Network Plus)