July 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Futures All-Star Jake Thompson feels he's 'not that far away' from joining Tigers

Jake Thompson of the U.S. Team looks on from the dugout against the World Team during the Futures All-Star Game Sunday. (Elsa / Getty Images)

Minneapolis — When Tigers’ pitching prospect Jake Thompson was in high school in metro Dallas, he had a chance to hit in the cages at the Texas Rangers’ ballpark.

Thompson’s high school hitting coach, Scott Coolbaugh, had played and coached for the Rangers, and while at the park, Thompson hit with second baseman Ian Kinsler. Now that Kinsler is on the Tigers, Thompson hopes to see him again soon.

“It would be cool to make the team and meet him that way,” Thompson said.

After representing the Tigers in the All-Star Futures Game Sunday at Target Field, in which he earned the win for the U.S. team, Thompson has reason to believe his shot at the majors may not be that far away. During breakfast Sunday, Thompson said someone mentioned that 115 players have made the All-Star Game after playing in the Futures Game, which began in 1999.

“It makes you realize that you’re really not that far away,” he said. “It makes you realize what an honor this really is to get recognized as one of the young talents in the game. It definitely makes you realize how real it is.”

The 6-foot-4 right-hander has pitched well in High-A Lakeland this season with a 3.14 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 83 innings.

Though Thompson is just 20 years old, he already uses five pitches. He has a four-seam fastball that can reach 95 miles per hour and a two-seamer that hits 92 miles per hour and moves like a sinker. Thompson also has a slider, changeup and curveball, which he’s worked to refine the past year with Tigers minor league pitching coordinator Al Nipper.

Thompson’s numbers with High-A Lakeland have been strikingly similar to what he posted with Single-A West Michigan last year.

“Last year I kind of got away from what made me me in high school and made me successful,” he said. “I was kind of nibbling, gave hitters a little bit too much credit. And this year, I came in, I threw well in spring training, had a lot of confidence, kind of sat down and told myself I’m going to go right at guys.

“I’m either going to beat them or they’re going to beat me. I’m not going to give them a free pass.”

That’s the Nolan Ryan-style approach Thompson and some other Texas pitchers take. But Thompson recognizes that he wasn’t blessed with the same arm as the Hall-of-Famer.

“I think if you’re not a guy that throws 100 miles an hour, you have to be able to mix it up and give different looks,” he said.

Thompson struggled in June this year, and in an attempt to break out of the slump, watched Tigers starter Rick Porcello, who threw complete-game shutouts on June 26 and July 1. He noticed that Porcello was effective by keeping his two-seam fastball down and letting hitters put the ball in play, which Thompson tried to emulate in a seven-inning, three-run start on July 7.

“He’s the kind of guy that I think I can be similar to, but there’s a lot of stuff that he does that every time I watch I pick up on,” Thompson said of Porcello.

The Futures Game was an eye-opening experience for Thompson, and he was excited to play for U.S. manager Tom Kelly, who won two World Series as the longtime Minnesota Twins manager.

“Everything about this weekend, especially coming from a minor league perspective, it makes you want to work harder,” said Thompson, whose parents came from Dallas to watch the game. “Being in this locker room compared to the locker rooms we have and seeing the way people interact with you, it’s truly amazing.”

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com
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