The 2018 calendar had turned to December when a still fragile Lane Thomas ventured up I-55 to Ellisville, Miss., with the slender hopes of continuing his baseball career.
The former Walker High standout pitcher was still in the stages of regaining his strength from a bout with mononucleosis, strep throat and an enlarged spleen – a triple crown of setbacks – that curtailed what was supposed to be his freshman season at Southeastern Louisiana.
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Thomas missed all of the Lions’ offseason and fall workouts, lost 25 pounds and knew the same fastball that he blazed past hitters in high school wasn’t college ready.
While the thought of walking away from the game had crossed his mind several times during his ordeal, Thomas received a by-chance text message from a friend at Jones Community College in Ellisville about the possibility of transferring more than two hours away from Hammond.
“I went on a visit there and loved it,” Thomas said. “It felt good to be back where I was, like in high school. I had other junior colleges contacting me. I was told that Jones was the place to be for baseball. I knew if I didn’t like the fit there, then it was looking the end of the road for me.”
Instead, it was a re-entry of sorts back to a career that had always brought Thomas so much joy, which he was able to find once again – becoming the ace of the staff at Jones with a 9-2 record, 3.01 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 71.2 innings for a program in desperate need a top-of-the-rotation guy.
It was a match made in baseball heaven where both sides benefitted – Thomas recapturing his past magic on the mound, which helped push Jones to a No. 4 ranking in the Mississippi junior college ranks and to the Region XXIII tournament.
“We were super glad he was with us because he was a shot in the arm when we really needed it,” Jones baseball coach Chris Kirtland said of Thomas.
Thomas was two more two months in what he believed was his dream opportunity.
The former All-Parish Pitcher of the Year had always envisioned himself playing near his hometown, needing to only travel 20 minutes down 1-12 to pitch for Southeastern Louisiana.
The Lions had become one of the upper echelon programs in the Southland Conference, making several trips to the NCAA regionals and doing so with an infusion of locally talented players like Thomas, who wanted to help the school maintain its ascent in baseball.
“That was the school I really wanted to play ball. I was excited to get there,” Thomas said.
A month into fall workouts that all changed when Thomas’ world was flipped upside down.
Thomas said he woke up one morning not feeling well enough to attend classes.
“I didn’t see the campus until 2 ½ months later,” he said. “It hit really hard.”
After enjoying an injury-free high school career, Thomas’ collegiate career was derailed before it could get on the tracks.
Thomas had contracted mononucleosis, a drawn-out illness that resulted in the eventual loss of 25 pounds. To compound matters, he also suffered from strep throat and it was later discovered an enlarged spleen, creating plenty of doubt he’d ever stand 60 feet, 6 inches from another batter.
“The first thought that went through my head was I might not play baseball again,” Thomas said. “I was thinking about hanging it up because of my situation. I thought that I would never get back to myself with the weight and the velocity I was at. That I couldn’t get healthy.”
Thomas was eventually treated for the mononucleosis and strep throat, but the enlarged spleen persisted and complicated matters.
“They said unless it went down, I could be out of athletics,” said Thomas, recalling the gloomy diagnosis.
By the middle of November, the mononucleosis had finally subsided, but Thomas’ spleen remained enlarged three weeks into December.
Because he was essentially quarantined for two months, Thomas completed all of his classwork online and maintained good grades during an exasperating time in his young life.
“I had never had anything like that happen to me at all,” Thomas said. “My mom and dad stayed on top of me with my grades. They’ve always told me that school was always first and baseball was second. When I wasn’t feeling good, I was on the computer checking on assignments or tests.
“I was at a point where I thought I would never play baseball again because I had missed so much (class),” Thomas said. “I didn’t think there would be a team that would want me after being out and losing so much weight.”
Kirtland said he had high hopes for his 2019 pitching staff until those plans began to unravel before the start of spring workouts. One of the Bobcats’ signees who was drafted eventually signed and didn’t make it to campus as hoped, while another signee had arm surgery and didn’t enroll.
“We were in a situation where we were hoping a transfer would come in,” Kirtland said.
It’s commonplace for junior colleges to rely on Division I transfers, and Kirtland said his pitching coach Ladd Rhodes – a former player under current SLU coach Matt Riser – was able to gain some background once Thomas made it apparent he wanted to transfer.
“You talk to people you trust,” Kirtland said. “You realize he’s (Thomas) a guy that has what it takes, assuming he’s healthy. We knew we were getting an athletic right-hander that could run it up there in the upper 80s with a good breaking ball.”
Thomas’ climb to the starting rotation at Jones came in small steps, first adding 10 pounds to his frame and continuing to work out and build stamina.
“I was eating a lot, anything I could get my hands on,” he said. “With the mono, anything I ate I threw up. I was starving all the time.”
Without having the luxury of fall workouts, Thomas had plenty of ground to cover to capture the attention of his new coaches and teammates. During the infancy stages, he agonized that because of his weight his fastball wouldn’t have the enough zip to get batters out.
“I remember my first bullpen and I was throwing 80-83 (miles per hour),” Thomas said. “In my head I’m thinking, ‘this was going to be bad’. I couldn’t pitch in college throwing that slow.”
Kirtland wasn’t deterred by a lack of velocity from Thomas but was encouraged about the potential of a guy, who without benefit of pitching in the fall, showed tremendous command and displayed the kind of confidence he looks for in a staff ace.
“He got better each time leading into the season,” Kirtland said. “He also had a swagger. He exuded a lot of confidence and when he has the ball in his hand, he’s a natural. I could tell he was going to be pretty darn good for us.”
Thomas had regained the 25 pounds by March and his fastball which was clocked in the low-to-mid 80s in his first bullpen, was now at 87-88 miles per hour, touching in the low 90s.
Combined with a devasting breaking ball, Thomas’ repertoire also included a curveball and slider from different arm angles, helping contribute to a 4-0 start and nine wins in 11 decisions.
Among those early confidence-building wins took place at Division II junior college power LSU Eunice ,where Thomas emerged victorious, allowing five hits and two earned runs over six innings in an 11-4 victory in which he struck out seven.
“It felt amazing to go out and win my first four games,” Thomas said. “I knew when I pitched that my defense would have my back and that was my main focus. Just putting balls in play. I didn’t look back and just kept on rolling.”
Thomas didn’t seem to be fazed by his lone regular-season defeat – a 9-4 defeat against Itawamba (Miss.) – in which he surrendered eight hits, six runs (four earned) in 5.2 innings.
With Jones in the middle of a season-high five-game losing streak, the Bobcats turned to Thomas in a time of need and he delivered.
Thomas allowed four hits and struck out six in a 12-2 win over Southwest Mississippi, triggering a stretch of 11 consecutive victories for his team with Thomas winning all four of his starts during that stretch.
The Bobcats reeled off 14 wins over a 16-game stretch and Thomas was at the heart of his team’s resurgence going into the postseason for the 11th straight year with wins over Copiah-Lincoln, Mississippi Gulf Coast, Pearl River and Hinds.
Thomas got another crack at Pearl River in the opening round of the Region XXIII tournament, suffering a heart-breaking 4-2 loss to the eventual tournament champions and College World Series participants. He yielded six hits, three runs, walk three and struck out 11 in 5.1 innings.
“He ended up being our No. 1 which was great to see out of a freshman,” Kirtland said. “He wants to make all of his pitches even better. I have a lot of excitement for what the future holds for him.”
Thomas is equally enthusiastic. He took a week off after the end of the spring semester and began working out four days a week in a local gym in Walker, while doing some throwing.
It’s the same type of anticipation that awaited Thomas at this time last year when he looked forward to enrolling at Southeastern and going through fall workouts with his new team.
He got the same jolt of energy after being able to return to pitching where he was a part of a successful season at Jones where he will unquestionably serve as the team’s ace in 2020.
Whether he’ll return to Hammond and conclude his career at Southeastern remains uncertain – a question Thomas looks to answer in November.
“I know what it takes to be a No. 1 now and I’m going to set the goal higher than what it was last year,” Thomas said. “I know what to expect and will actually have a fall this year. I’m familiar with the teams and the players for each team in our conference.
“Going back to Southeastern has definitely crossed my mind,” Thomas said. “I’ve thought about it and would like to explore my options, see what’s available for me in Mississippi, Alabama or Louisiana. Whatever fits my pitching (style) the best is where I’m going to end up.”