After getting drafted in the 39th round by the New York Yankees in 2007, 51s left fielder Eric Thames returned to Pepperdine in 2008 wearing a “First Round or Bust” T-shirt.
“I was just joking around, but I wanted to see if I could be a first-rounder,” said Thames, who leads Las Vegas in batting with a .434 average (23-for-53). “I had the attitude I wanted to prove myself.”
Thames responded with a monster season for the Waves, hitting .407 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs in 49 games to earn West Coast Conference Most Valuable Player honors.
But about a week before the draft, he tore his right quadriceps muscle sprinting to first base.
“The phone calls definitely stopped after that,” said Thames, who was projected to go in the first three rounds before the injury. “That just added a little more fuel to the fire. It made me prove myself a little more and bounce back from it.”
Thames, 24, was selected by the Blue Jays in the seventh round, with the 219th overall pick. He had surgery shortly thereafter and was sidelined until spring training 2009.
He hit .313 with three homers and 38 RBIs in 52 games with Class-A Dunedin (Fla.), but his season was cut short because of continuing problems with his quadriceps.
“It started bothering me, so we shut it down,” said Thames, a native of San Jose, Calif. “I went home, rehabbed and trained and got back to 100 percent, and I haven’t had a problem since.”
Still driven by his draft slight, a healthy, leaner Thames bounced back with a vengeance last season at Double-A New Hampshire, batting .288 with 27 homers and 104 RBIs en route to Eastern League All-Star honors.
“All the balls I would crush (in 2009) went off the wall, because I didn’t have my leg strength. Last year, I had all the strength back,” he said. “I got everything into every swing and the ball started shooting out.”
Promoted to Triple A this year, the 6-foot, 195-pound Thames hasn’t missed a beat.
He has hit safely in 12 of 13 games for the 51s (9-4) and entered Tuesday among the Pacific Coast League leaders in virtually every offensive category before going 1-for-4 with a double in Las Vegas’ 4-0 win over Salt Lake (7-5) at Cashman Field.
In his first four home games against Fresno, Thames went 11-for-17 with a homer, triple, four doubles, six RBIs and eight runs scored.
He had four hits in Monday’s 9-8 victory over the Grizzlies, including a walk-off, bases-loaded single in the 10th inning.
“I like men in scoring position when he’s up there,” Las Vegas manager Marty Brown said.
“He’s got great bat speed and he’s very aggressive, yet he has a good eye at the plate, too. He usually gets good pitches he can handle.”
Thames, who has two homers, a triple, and a team-leading eight doubles and 14 RBIs, said he has employed a simple approach to hitting this year.
“I’m just honestly not thinking at the plate. It’s just kind of see the ball and swing hard,” he said. “That’s it.”
Thames, who needs to improve his defense and base running before he’ll be ready for the majors, also credits his success to slimming down from his first season at Pepperdine.
“I was probably about 20 pounds heavier than I am now, but it was all muscle,” he said. “It looks good at bars and stuff, but it’s not baseball good.
“I kind of made a conscious decision to swallow my pride to get better and stay healthy, and it’s worked so far.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354.LAS VEGAS — 4 SALT LAKE — 0
KEY: Brad Mills scattered four hits and struck out seven in eight innings for the 51s, and Manny Mayorson and Chris Woodward each hit a two-run homer.
NEXT: Bees (RHP Eric Junge) at 51s (LHP Willie Collazo), 7:05 p.m. today, KBAD-AM (920)