Former Campbell standout Ryan Thompson overcomes surgery, reaches World Series

The relief pitcher, at a career crossroads after having Tommy John surgery, is now a key part of the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen

Former Campbell pitcher Ryan Thompson has been a been a go-to reliever for the Tampa Bay Rays during their run to the World Series. (Gregory Bull / AP Photo)

A year ago, Ryan Thompson was substitute teaching and helping his mother lead a Wii dance club in his hometown of Turner, Oregon.

Twelve months later, he’s pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.

It’s an unlikely transformation made all the more improbable by the fact that the former Campbell University star had to endure six years in the minors and Tommy John surgery just to get to the major leagues for the first time this season.

“Looking back at my journey and looking back at being a little kid wanting to play in the major leagues, it’s crazy in that regard,” Thompson said. “But knowing the work I’ve put in, knowing how much I’ve wanted this and how much I know I can do this, it wasn’t a surprise.”

Maybe not to him.

But as far as the Rays were concerned, the plan was for Thompson to start the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.

It’s a plan that, like so many others, got thrown out the window when the coronavirus pandemic halted spring training in mid-March.

When the team reassembled in July to begin preparing for the delayed season, he was brought over from the team’s alternate training site to throw batting practice. But he was so impressive in doing so, he earned a spot on the opening day roster.

“He was just dominant,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said in a Zoom conference before Tuesday’s Game 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I give Thomps a lot of credit and definitely (general manager Erik Neander) in our front office for recognizing that the best version of our club has him on it. He’s been a stud for us basically all season long.”

Thompson made his long-awaited major league debut with a scoreless outing against Toronto on July 24, the first of 25 regular season appearances out of the bullpen in which he was 1-2 with a save and 23 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings.

He’s been even more effective since the start of the postseason.

Except for a Game 5 outing in which he walked three and gave up a home run in an American League Divisional Series loss to the New York Yankees — a performance he chalked up to fatigue — Thompson has not allowed a run in his other eight games, including three against the Dodgers in the World Series.

“He’s been so efficient and really dominating,” Cash said. “I’m so impressed with how he’s learned.”

Thompson has been dominant before. At Campbell, he became the school’s first two-time All-American, leading the nation with a 0.88 earned run average in 2013 and recording 17 saves to go along with a 7-2 record while pitching the Camels to the Big South Conference championship and earning the league’s Pitcher of the Year award the following season.

His fast track to stardom, however, slowed considerably after he was taken by the Houston Astros with the first pick of the 23rd round that year. He spent four years moving through the ranks until reaching a career crossroads in 2017 when he began to lose velocity on his fastball and his ERA soared to 15.26 in six games at the Triple-A level.

It was at that point he underwent ligament replacement surgery to his pitching elbow, forcing him to miss the entire 2018 season. When he returned to action after being taken by the Rays in baseball’s minor league draft, he had to start all over again in A ball.

“I always felt like I was a realist in my career and I always felt like if I had a moment where I didn’t think it was possible, I would give it up,’ Thompson said. “Minor league baseball is not an easy lifestyle.

“A year ago today, I was substitute teaching, I was doing lessons, I was tag-teaming with my mom doing a Wii dance club at the high school, trying to make as much money as I could so I could afford training.”

As it turned out, the surgery and the change of organizations were the best things that could have happened to the 6-foot-5 right-hander. Not only did he gain 4-5 mph on his pitches, but he also used the time away from the game to improve other aspects of his life.

“I found out I had a lot of complacencies I was neglecting,” he said. “When your mind is so focused on baseball and competing and getting guys out, you don’t really have that time to think about who you are and where you’re going in your relationships, your diet and all these other things.

“So I had a full year to not think about baseball. I became a better human being. I lost 30 pounds and when I came back, that was the year that made my career. If I didn’t have that surgery, I don’t think I’d be here right now.”

He said the same thing about his time at Campbell, a school he represents with pride — as he showed by putting on a Camels cap when asked by a reporter about his alma mater.

He is the fifth Campbell alumnus to play in the World Series, joining Rube Melton for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, Gaylord Perry with the 1962 San Francisco Giants, Jim Perry in 1965 with the Minnesota Twins and Cal Koonce in 1969 with the New York Mets.

“Before I got to Campbell, I was a nobody,” Thompson said. “I was just a kid from a small town in Oregon who just loved baseball. When I got this opportunity to go to Campbell, my life changed.

“I have coach (Rick) McCarty, coach (Greg) Goff and coach (Justin) Haire to thank for my life. I talk to them it seems like every week. Those guys were instrumental to my life and my baseball career. I learned how to compete at my best level there. I learned to be a follower of Christ there. I cannot describe how instrumental Campbell was to my career. I go back there every year and I can’t wait to go back. That place is like a magnet to me. I absolutely love that place.”