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Flip The Switch

May 18, 2010

By Jon Cooper

It would a bigger surprise for Brandon Thomas to see his name in the starting lineup than to not.

It’s not that he did anything wrong or that Head Coach Danny Hall has something against playing freshmen.

It’s just not Thomas’ time right now.

But that time will come and when it does for the switch-hitting outfielder, he will be ready.

Thomas has already proved that, filling in after starting left fielder and tri-captain Jay Dantzler suffered a fractured right wrist on March 21 after getting hit by a pitch from Maryland’s Sander Beck.

“Brandon stepped up huge for us,” said Assistant Coach Bryan Prince. “We didn’t hesitate to put Brandon out there to see what he could do and he responded, and in a positive way and was big for us.”

The numbers may not scream big time, a .217 batting average – an average that suffered as he endured a 3-for-16 slump over his last five starts – with 15 runs scored and 12 RBI in 22 games. But one of those hits was as big as any hit for Georgia Tech this season.

It was a two-out, two-run triple in the top of the ninth inning of the March 28 series finale against North Carolina, with Tech trailing 8-3. The triple would spark a five-run uprising, capped off by Derek Dietrich’s two-run, game-tying home run, as the Yellow Jackets would win the game, 11-8, in 10 innings, posting Tech’s first sweep of the Tar Heels since 2000 and first in Chapel Hill since 1997.

“That was really cool. It was probably one of the highlights of my year,” said Thomas, who had a career-high four RBI in what was only his sixth collegiate start. “Going into UNC, I was a little nervous. I was really excited just knowing all the history between the two schools. I just stayed relaxed as possible and good things happened.”

Good things have happened for Thomas since he attached himself to junior shortstop Derek Dietrich.

“I kind of attached on to him early in the year,” said Thomas, a Pace Academy graduate. “I’ve been watching his swing, watching his game, watching how he goes about his business. He’s at the field early, he’s getting extra hacks in before every game, he works harder than anybody in the weight room. He is a great role model in the field. I’ve really just tried to watch him and emulate his work ethic.

“Off the field he’s been great, too,” Thomas continued. “He’s a really good friend of mine. We hang out a lot, chill. He’s been a good mentor to me and I appreciate it.”

“Early on, we kind of hit it off,” said Dietrich. “His locker ended up next to mine. I just noticed that we shared some of the same characteristics as a person and as an athlete. He’s a hard worker, he likes to get in extra work all the time and I always love to have someone there to hit with and work out with. So we kind of hit it off on that aspect.”

Off the field, the two shared another bond, coincidentally attending the same church. With so much in common, they were a natural pairing as roommates on the road.

“He’s a Catholic and we figured out that we go to the same church together down her Atlanta,” said Dietrich. “We go to Christ The King up in Buckhead. That was his elementary school parish. We had that spiritual relationship. Then being roommates on the road, has been great. Brandon’s definitely a guy that has the tools now and will develop and mature as a player. Three years from now he’s going to be one of the best players in the country. It’s just been nice to have someone there to kind of relay some of the information that I have and it also helps me as a player because sometimes we’ll be hitting up in the cages or during a game or something and I’ll see something and I’ll tell him something and it will make me realize, ‘Hey, I’ve got to do that,’ or just makes me feel like I have something that I can pass on and help him with. It’s a good feeling.”

They’ve been so inseparable everywhere that Thomas even earned the nickname, ‘B-Boi,’ a spin-off of Dietrich’s nickname, ‘D-Boi.’

“I don’t know whether he likes it or not, but it’s kind of funny,” said Dietrich. (For the record, Thomas is fine with B-Boi).

Prince believes the close relationship with Dietrich will also help Thomas make a name for himself as a ballplayer.

“Derek does all the little things the right way – the way he prepares and nothing is too small for him to work on,” said Prince. “If Brandon sees that and continues a positive work ethic and does those things he is an outstanding baseball player and is only going to get better.”

Prince is not alone in seeing a bright future for Thomas. C.J. Stewart is Thomas’ hitting coach, as well as the owner of Diamond Directors, a Marietta-based training facility, which has made headlines with the ascension of Atlanta Braves rookie outfield sensation Jason Heyward.

“Brandon is another kid very much like Jason, when I saw him, has a high-level of aptitude,” said Stewart, who coaches Heyward as well as Clemson’s Kyle Parker. “Brandon is probably one of the most athletic players I’ve ever worked with and I’ve worked with a lot of good athletes. To this day he’s one of the top athletes. I’ve worked with.”

An athlete with great speed who can hit from either side of the plate, an advantage he nearly gave up.

“Switch-hitting is a tough thing,” said Thomas. “If you have a couple of bad games, you start questioning, ‘Maybe if I was just hitting right-handed, or maybe if I was just hitting left-handed, the tough times would go away.’ But [Stewart] encouraged me to stick with it. In the long run it’s paying off and it’s going to continue to pay off.”

Like it did that Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill – his triple came from the left side.

Thomas understands that there will be more days like that Sunday, but he’ll simply have to bide his time.

“Just keep playing, keep playing hard, playing the right way,” said Prince. “He’s going to be an outstanding player.”

That’s something Thomas will always do.

“Every day I go to the ball park I’ve got to be ready. You have to prepare like you’re going to play every day,” said Thomas. “If you get the chance to help your team, it’s great. If not, you cheer your teammates on and hope for the best. It was fun while I was in there and I’m just glad that I was able to help my team out.”


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