After being stuck on the bench for the first two games of the season this week, Trayce Thompson was reluctant to leave it in the bottom of the eighth inning Saturday night.
The outfielder had just completed a career night at the plate; one that began with a first-inning grand slam off longtime Dodgers foe Madison Bumgarner, continued in the fifth with a three-run bomb that put the team’s 10-1 win out of reach, and culminated with an eighth-inning moon shot that landed halfway up the left-field pavilion.
And just like his first two big flies, Thompson’s last long ball brought a crowd of 48,886 at Dodger Stadium raucously to its feet.
Only this time, the cheering didn’t end when Thompson disappeared into the dugout.
The screams didn’t subside as he headed for his seat.
Seven years after first slipping on Dodger blue and becoming an instant fan favorite, five years after being unceremoniously cut following several injury-plagued seasons and 10 months removed from a fulfilling return to Chavez Ravine that saw Thompson revive his career with the club last season, the 32-year-old journeyman was being begged to give a curtain call.
And after some coaxing from teammates Freddie Freeman and Tony Gonsolin, Thompson modestly obliged.
“That doesn’t happen a lot,” Thompson said. “So that was pretty cool.”
It was a reflection of the mindset that helped get Thompson — whose brief 2016 emergence with the Dodgers was followed by six seasons spent largely bouncing around the minor leagues — back to the majors with the Dodgers last summer.
A reminder of the straightforward, head-down, blinders-on approach he maintains even after he reestablished himself in the majors following a trade back to the organization last June.
“Trayce is one of the hardest working guys I’ve been around, just grinds day in, day out,” a smiling Clayton Kershaw said. “So it’s really fun to see him have success after the journey that he’s had.”
Added catcher Austin Barnes, one of Thompson’s longtime friends in the game: “He tends to be a shy guy. But that was a special moment.”
It was made all the more meaningful by the position Thompson was in coming out of spring training.
Despite batting .268 with 13 home runs, 39 RBIs and a .901 OPS in 74 games last season — key contributions for a Dodgers team working around the struggles of Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger in the outfield — Thompson had slid back into a platoon role to start this season, opening the year as a part-time player expected to get the majority of his playing time against left-handed pitching.
The only problem: Thompson had puzzlingly struggled against southpaws in 2022, posting a .621 OPS that was almost half his mark in right-on-right matchups.
It was a flaw the slugger tried to rectify this spring, both in his Cactus League games with the Dodgers and his World Baseball Classic appearance with Team Great Britain.
But Thompson slumped through most of camp nonetheless, collecting just three hits in 35 exhibition at-bats and going 0 for 14 against lefties.
“I’m probably the worst spring training player in here, I would imagine,” Thompson deadpanned. “I felt like I’ve been in a good spot. The results just weren’t there.”
That changed in his first trip to the plate Saturday.
Though Thompson said he hadn’t hit Bumgarner well in his career, he’d seen the lefty a lot in practice during his time in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization in the 2020 season.
So, when he came to the plate with the bases loaded, two outs and one run already on the board in the opening frame, he calmly took a first-pitch curveball before jumping at the next offering — a hanging changeup Bumgarner left down the middle.
“I just try to keep it simple, try not to overthink it, try not to do too much,” Thompson said. “I feel like that approach, especially against these really good guys, really established guys, that usually works well for me.”
It was the second grand slam of Thompson’s career, and far from the last highlight of his storybook night.
Facing Arizona right-hander Kevin Ginkel with two on and two outs in the fifth inning, Thompson waited for his pitch again. He took a first-pitch sinker in the dirt. He laid off a slider just off the plate. Then, anticipating a fastball in a hitter’s count, he clobbered an elevated four-seamer 417 feet to left-center field.
“For me, in my opinion, the best hitters in baseball hit the fastball the best,” Thompson said. “So that second one felt pretty good.”
It was his third home run, however, that garnered the most sentimental reaction.
While Thompson witnessed curtain-call moments for Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp during his first stint with the team, the Los Angeles native had never imagined Dodger Stadium cheering one for him —- not even after his eighth-inning blast made him the third player in franchise history to have a three-homer, eight-RBI game.
“You don’t necessarily think about like, ‘Oh man, hopefully I get a curtain call,’” Thompson said. “I was just happy to hit another ball hard.”
Thompson didn’t indulge the crowd long. He took a couple of steps up the dugout stairs, quickly waved his right hand in the air and then ducked back to the bench again.
“Trayce is not a self-promoter,” Dave Roberts said. “But … he earned that curtain call.”
Plus a little else from Roberts, too.
With a right-hander lined up to pitch for the Diamondbacks on Sunday, Thompson was originally slated to be back on the bench for the finale of the four-game series.
The totality of his dazzling debut, however, finally forced the manager’s hand.
“If you hit three homers,” Roberts said with a laugh, “you’re in there the next day.”
When relayed the news, Thompson happily accepted, hoping to turn Saturday’s outburst into a tone-setting display for his once seemingly uncertain season.
“Everyone kind of knows my journey, and it’s been a long journey, so to be back here, it does mean a lot to me,” Thompson said. “But like I said, I always have belief and conviction in myself, so I know I can have nights like this. I’m just thankful that tonight was one of those nights.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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