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Eager to make his mark

Courtesy of Palm Beach Cardinals
Thomas Eager
Courtesy of Palm Beach Cardinals Thomas Eager Merced Sun-Star

Thomas Eager stepped back off the pitching rubber.

It was time to regroup. Time to settle the nerves. Time to come up with a new gameplan.

The first plan wasn't going to work.

Eager had just reached back and fired a fastball as hard as he could. The pitch didn't even come close to the strike zone.

Now Eager found himself standing on the mound, looking for answers, down in the count 1-0 to Minnesota Twins all-star Joe Mauer.

It was early in the year and Mauer was on a rehab assignment with the Fort Myers Miracle.

"I told myself I was going to go at him with everything I had," said Eager, who was pitching out of the bullpen for the Palm Beach Cardinals, St. Louis' High-A affiliate.

"The first pitch wasn't even close," Eager said. "Mauer must have looked at the pitch and thought this kid is crazy. After that pitch, I had to step back and think about it."

Eager settled down.

A fastball and a slider put the count at 2-1, and Eager decided to come inside on Mauer with a four-seam fastball.

"I just hoped he wouldn't yank it out of the yard," Eager said.

"I let it rip and I broke his bat. He rolled over to second base.

"It's something I'll always remember."

Eager's encounter with Mauer has easily been the highlight of his season.

It's a season in which Eager has been dominant at times. The former Merced High right-hander would come in with his 94 mph fastball and blow hitters away for a couple innings.

However, a recent string of bad outings have taken a hit on his ERA. Eager is 3-5 with a 5.40 ERA.

"Being a reliever isn't like being a starter where you're worried about your wins and losses and ERA," Eager said. "A reliever's ERA fluctuates each outing. You look at your hits and innings pitched and your walks and strikeouts."

Eager is giving up less than a hit an inning, with 49 hits allowed in 51 2/3 innings. He's racked up 54 strikeouts.

Eager's still learning what it takes to pitch out of the bullpen; what it takes to be ready at any time every day.

He was a starter at Merced his senior year and during his time at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

He made the move to the bullpen this year.

"I enjoy the adrenaline rush," he said. "I get in more games instead of having to wait every fifth game.

"I mentioned to our pitching coordinator I didn't mind being a reliever. I think I'm better suited for it.

"I feel it's the right step for my baseball career. Relieving fits my mentality more. I'm an emotional player. I'm not as emotional as I was in high school or college, but I'm still learning."

His coaches like what they see.

"I think he has that killer instinct," said Palm Beach pitching coach Dennis Martinez, who won 245 games during his 23-year Major League career.

"You have to be in control of that because it can backfire on you. If you can't control it, you won't advance and you'll never get better.

"Thomas is dedicated and he likes to improve on a daily basis. He's shown a lot of improvement from last year to this year.

"He's willing to go to any length to get there. He's still young and he's got a long way to go."

Eager's enjoying his time in West Palm Beach.

How could he not?

He's sharing a condo with teammates just a couple blocks from the ballpark and a mile away from the beach.

But the life of a minor league player is not for everybody.

"It's not as glamorous as people think," Eager said. "We don't get paid much money. Some people get a nice signing bonus, but you can't live off that forever. The best word to describe it is it's a grind.

"I'm in a great spot right now. The longest bus rides in the Florida State League are three hours."

Still, Eager has some minor league horror stories he can match with anyone.

At the top of his list is a trip to Oneonta, N.Y., last year when he played in the New York-Penn League.

"When you think of New York, you think of New York City," he said.

"Oneonta was far from New York City. It felt like we were out in the middle of nowhere in the corn fields of Nebraska.

"Before we went, all I heard was about how bad the stadium and hotel was.

"We rolled up to this hotel called 'The Oasis.' It was so far from an oasis.

"It had two strips of rooms. We took up one strip and when we all turned on the light, the power went out.

"The room reeked. I didn't want to sleep in the blankets so I slept in my clothes. When I took a shower I wore my flip-flops.

"I'll never forget 'The Oasis.'"

Eager has the support of his family. That's why he's able to pursue his dream.

"Some guys have their careers cut short because they don't have the support from their family," Eager said. "Some guys leave to go back to school, others get married and want to start a family.

"It's not for everybody. I'm lucky, my dad is my No. 1 fan.

"I'm sacrificing a lot to be here. There's a lot going on in California. I'm missing weddings and family reunions.

"It's like my first manager told me. You have a five- or six-year window. You can do that other stuff the rest of your life.

"Why not give yourself that opportunity to make it?"

That gameplan hasn't changed.

Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at 385-2462 or sjansen@mercedsun-star.com.

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