LAWRENCE — From the moment his star third baseman went down in the preseason, Kansas baseball coach Ritch Price planned to put Tony Thompson back in the lineup as soon as possible.
With a player of Thompson's caliber, there would be no waiting. As a sophomore in 2009, he put together a remarkable 61 games, taking the Big 12's triple crown with a .389 average, 21 home runs and 82 RBIs. Entering this season, the Jayhawks were picked to finish second in the Big 12 for the first time in school history. The stakes were high, and after six weeks of rehabbing a hairline fracture in his kneecap, Thompson was cleared to play — but not without a stern warning from Price.
"Tony," Price told him, "you're gonna have to be more mature than you've ever been in your life."
When Thompson debuted on March 23 against Creighton, the Jayhawks were 11-8 and, truly, Price had felt KU had overachieved to get there without Thompson bashing baseballs in the cleanup spot. There was a feeling in the clubhouse that Thompson's return would get things going, but Price knew better. Other than three days of batting practice, Thompson hadn't seen any pitching or swung a bat with his full power behind it. He would have to be patient, and, yes, mature.
To say Thompson struggled out of the gate would be an understatement.
"He pressed," Price said. "He was swinging at every first pitch, he was check-swinging at balls in the dirt. He was trying to put up numbers and help his team, and he buried himself."
Big 12 pitchers did their homework and made sure not to give Thompson anything appetizing. The Jayhawks' attack continued to go on without the punch that helped them to an NCAA Tournament berth last season.
"He changes games with one swing," Price said. "All of us that watch Alex Rodriguez play and Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard, you can't teach that. That's what he brings to the table."
That Thompson could be mentioned in the same breath as those major league behemoths has come as a shock to many. Thompson was not recruited highly out of Reno, Nev., despite having a 6-foot-4 build and raw power. Thompson believes that he was overlooked because he was actually bigger than what most colleges want in a third baseman. Price didn't let that get in his way after he witnessed Thompson win a home run contest at an all-star game his junior year.
"He was hitting balls over the light towers," Price said.
Price started Thompson his freshman year, and then things came together last season.
"It was amazing," Thompson said. "I never would have expected something like that would happen. But since I came here, they put faith in me. (Price) knew I was gonna get it done when other people thought I wasn't."
Oh, those other people have begun to come around.
"I've had more than one coach tell me they made a big-time mistake," Price said.
Price put faith in Thompson again this season by immediately putting him back into the lineup and letting him work out of his troubles. And as the Jayhawks (26-19-1, 7-10-1 Big 12) head into a weekend series against Missouri in Lawrence, Thompson appears to be coming back to life.
"On Sunday, he walked on two 3-and-2 pitches that were fastballs below the knees," Price said. "The first six weeks he's been back, he was swinging at that pitch. When I saw him take those two walks, that told me he was going to be back in the zone and swinging at strikes."
Two weeks ago, Thompson had a key conversation with KU hitting coach John Szefc.
"He told me whatever is done is done now," Thompson said. "You can't make up for lost time. Now, I just go out and try to be a good hitter before a power hitter."
Thompson is hitting .293 with 4 home runs and 27 RBIs. He's got 10 games left to salvage the Jayhawks' season along with his own. Certainly, as Price predicted, it's been a process of maturation.
"Hopefully," Thompson said, "I can still live up to expectations and finish strong."