The cancellation of spring sports couldn't have come at a worse time for Levi Thomas.
After all, the 2017 Cullman High graduate and current Troy baseball standout had put together one heck of a start to his junior season with the Trojans.
In 23 innings before games were halted due to the coronavirus outbreak, Thomas had allowed just one earned run — good for a minuscule 0.39 ERA — and nine hits.
He also compiled 42 strikeouts and limited opposing batters to a paltry .117 average.
Unfortunately for Thomas and his teammates, they won't ever know what could have been.
"Absolutely, that's tough," he said. "Not just for me, either, but for the whole team. We all have the longest offseason. Day 1 — we're in the weight room, we're conditioning. No one likes to wake up early and do conditioning. But all the stuff behind the scenes is done then. All the fun stuff is what everyone sees on the field. I would have really, really liked to see what our team could have done and could have accomplished once we got on track. We had so many people doing good things."
While Troy got off to a so-so start, Thomas stormed out of the gate with authority.
He opened his campaign by striking out a career-high 14 batters in five scoreless innings against Northern Kentucky and followed that up with six no-hit innings and 11 strikeouts versus Louisiana Tech — those outings helped him earn back-to-back Sun Belt Player of the Week accolades.
Thomas was also named Collegiate Baseball's National Player of the Week following his dynamite work against Northern Kentucky.
He closed his shortened season with superb outings against No. 1 Florida (6 IP, 5 H, 0 ER, 6 K) and Michigan State (6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 11 K), respectively.
Those four performances were more than encouraging for Thomas, who had sought to follow a solid sophomore year in which he notched an 8-2 record, a 4.24 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 80 2/3 innings with an even better junior campaign.
As for what brought that vast improvement along?
“It was a mixture of things,” Thomas said. “After last season, there was some talk with scouts … and it really motivated me to work hard to give myself an opportunity to play at the next level. The fire in me helped and having a fantastic pitching coach (Matt Hancock) did as well. I owe a lot to him. He put me in uncomfortable situations over and over, and I learned and adapted. It helped me grow so much as a pitcher. It also comes down to hard work. It’s cliché, but nothing can replace a good work ethic. Lots and lots and lots of reps … it was paying off. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get to continue the season to see how far I could take it. But I was really happy with the four weeks we were given.”
Despite the small sample size, Thomas turned plenty of heads on the national level.
He was named one of the Top 100 pitchers (No. 48) in the country by DI Baseball — the list was based on the 2019 season and the first four weeks of the 2020 campaign — and Perfect Game selected him as one of the Top 400 MLB Draft prospects (No. 153).
DI Baseball also named him the Most Impressive Pitcher in the Sun Belt Conference.
Perhaps the coolest recognition, though, came via Twitter, where Thomas was featured in three tweets by the "Pitching Ninja" back in February.
The handle (@PitchingNinja) was created by baseball analyst Rob Friedman — it currently boasts more than 207,000 followers — and routinely posts videos and GIFs of pitchers at every level, including MLB.
One tweet read, "Love this dude," in response to Thomas’ fiery reaction following an inning-ending strikeout in the game against Florida.
“It was a dream come true,” said Thomas of the accolade. “I have followed Pitching Ninja for years and have always wanted to be featured. But I never thought it would actually happen. It was just an incredible feeling when he posted about wanting to see more of me and then followed it up with my clip from Florida. It was something I’ll never forget.
“I got so many texts and calls from people saying they saw his tweets of me, and it was pretty surreal. I’m incredibly thankful to have been featured, and I couldn’t have done it without the great coaches I have had to push me to get better each day.”
Thomas’ attention, however, has since shifted to a fulfilling a childhood dream, even if the future is murky.
The 2020 MLB Draft is slated for July but will likely have a smaller number of rounds — it's typically 40 — due to the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s made a complicated process even more complex for players like Thomas.
“There’s so much unknown about it,” he said. “No one really knows where they will be selected. We don’t even know how many rounds there are going to be. I’m really hoping they decide on 10. Everyone I’ve talked to believes I’m comfortably in the first 10 rounds. But nothing is set in stone, and we’re just hoping for the best. My dream is to play professional baseball. In high school, I never thought that was going to be possible. But I got to Troy, and the velocity came out of nowhere. It’s just unbelievable to be in this position, and I’m very grateful for it.”
Thomas, like many other athletes in this new, quarantine-fueled normal, has had to adapt to many changes regarding his routine.
It’s been interesting to say the least.
“I invested in some training tools,” Thomas said. “I’ve got a portable strike zone with me wherever I go. I take a bucket of balls and go to the local park and do my routine. On Fridays, I simulate throwing a game. Basically, it’s a bullpen. But I up my intensity, try to stay in shape. If, God willing, I get a call in the summer, I want to be ready to go. This (quarantine) has allowed me to focus on the meticulous details I normally couldn’t focus on during a season. I’m trying to make the best out of a bad situation.”
Not all collegiate athletes have the polished work ethic of Thomas.
That drive to go the extra mile can be traced back to his high school days at Cullman.
More specifically, to coach Brent Patterson.
“My time at Cullman was crucial,” Thomas said. “Coach Patterson is an incredible coach and an even better person. My older brother (Jesse) played for him, so I was exposed to the program at an early age. I knew it was going to be one of the hardest things I’ve done mentally and physically – being pushed to the max all four years of high school. But it was so crucial to my development. Coach Patterson taught me that if you want something, there’s no easy way to get it. He instilled a great work ethic in all of us. You want to work hard for anything you’re passionate about. Being around that for so long with Cullman, it just carried over to Troy. Some of the lessons he taught me, I use them to this day. I’m very thankful for everything he’s done for me.”
And Patterson is equally thankful for players like Thomas buying wholly into the program.
According to the longtime coach, Thomas continued to work and get better each and every day, and he eventually reaped the rewards with a quality senior campaign.
Thomas went 6-2 with 79 strikeouts, a 0.86 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP in 56 2/3 innings, earning All-State honors (Class 6A honorable mention) and a scholarship to Troy in the process.
“He was one who really committed,” Patterson said. “The summer before his senior year, he had 100 percent buy-in. We didn’t have to ask him to do anything. He was almost obsessed. He was always really talented. But when he put in the work, it helped him believe in himself. Every time he went to the mound, it got a little better and a little better. He proved to himself how good he was. It would be great to see him get drafted. He’s such an unselfish, kindhearted, team guy. To see success come to guys like that is gratifying. You want it for guys like him. He left a big impact on our program.”