In the bigs

Former Chico State pitcher sticks in Padres bullpen

Dale Thayer earned his spot in the bullpen.

Dale Thayer earned his spot in the bullpen.

Photo courtesy of San Diego Padres

Reliever Dale Thayer of the San Diego Padres did not have the meteoric rise enjoyed by some pitching prospects. In fact, the former Chico State pitcher has stuck in the Major Leagues for the first time in a decade.

In what would be a major blow for an aspiring professional ballplayer, Thayer wasn’t drafted following his junior year, in which he saved 14 games for the Wildcats during the team’s 2002 run to the championship game of the NCAA Division II tournament. Undeterred, he tried out for the Padres in September of that year and was signed as an undrafted free agent.

Perseverance has become one of Thayer’s defining characteristics, as he continued pursuing his big league dream past the point where most would quit. After toiling in the minor leagues for more than six seasons, he got his first Major League call-up in 2009 with the Tampa Bay Rays, pitching a little over 15 innings in two seasons bouncing between Triple-A and the big club. He got his next shot in 2011 with the New York Mets, pitching just 10 innings out of the bullpen.

“I just didn’t want to give up on my chance to pitch in the big leagues,” he said during a recent phone interview. “My first couple call-ups were pretty short. I feel like I didn’t get a chance to show everything I had. I feel like I could have done better. I wanted to stick around.”

And finally, after 10 years of pitching effectively at every professional level, Thayer, now 31, was traded back to his original organization and has earned a job in the Padres bullpen. Relying mostly on his fastball and a hard slider, he has posted a 2-2 record through 42 games, converting six of his eight save opportunities and sporting a 3.64 earned-run average. Thayer says he has reached a point where he isn’t star-struck by big names in the batter’s box.

“During my first call-up in ’09, in my first save opportunity I had to face the middle of the [Colorado] Rockies lineup,” he said. “I’ve seen what they can do on TV, and what they’ve done for years. That was about the only time I thought about who I was facing, aside from just knowing the batter and the scouting report on them.”

He’s come a long way from that junior season with the Wildcats, but he still recalls their championship run fondly.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “We were the No. 1 team in the nation for a while—it was cool to be on a team that good. It’s just a lot of fun when you win.”