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Slight advantage

CENTRAL POINT — Chris Thomas knows what opposing teams are thinking when he toes the rubber. He's heard all the snickers and trash talk before.

As much as anyone, Thomas realizes that when you stand 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds, your presence on the mound isn't exactly intimidating.

But somewhere between "we're gonna rip this guy" and the third strike, the Crater High ace destroys those preconceived notions.

"That just makes me more determined and ready to go," Thomas says when batters take him lightly. "I try to show that even though I'm not as big as the next guy, I can throw just as well. I'm always trying to prove that."

Given his numbers this season, it's a safe bet that he's already made quite an impression on opponents.

The senior boasts a 6-0 record with only nine earned runs in 46 innings of work. He's allowed 30 hits with 51 strikeouts for a Crater team ranked No. 2 in Class 5A baseball.

In an early-season tournament in California, Thomas struck out 10 and walked only two in nine innings but had to settle for a no-decision in a 1-1 tie against host Fresno High.

"He's worked hard to become a good pitcher," says second-year Comets coach Jay Campbell. "When kids are smaller in stature that's just the bottom line, they've got to work harder."

Thomas' development as Crater's top pitcher has been gradual. He was thrown into the rotation as a sophomore, and has steadily added to his repertoire of pitches. An 80 mile-per-hour fastball has been complemented by a changeup and, most recently, a steady curveball to keep hitters off balance.

"He's really worked hard on his curveball and that's really come around this season," says Campbell. "That's made him tougher to face because now you can't really be sure what's coming."

Thomas also has a knack for locating his pitches, and exudes confidence when he's out on the mound.

"He's comfortable and in his own world out there, and that's what you want from a pitcher," adds Campbell. "I don't think there's any question that he's the best pitcher in our league, and I think he's one of the better ones in the state."

His importance to the Comets' success can't be understated. If you take his six wins away, Crater is 5-4 overall and not the state heavyweight it is today.

"He's carrying the load for us pitching-wise," says Campbell. "We're pretty much going to go as far as he can take us."

That last statement, however, can be a little alarming for anyone who has ever had the chance to hang around Thomas when he's not on the mound. If you're trying to describe him in one word, goofy seems to be the top choice.

"He's a funny kid," says Campbell. "He's just out there to have a good time and not a whole lot bothers him. He's pretty laid back until he gets out on the mound. When he's there, he really competes."

For his part, Thomas doesn't dispute the label he's earned.

"I like to joke around with the team and do weird stuff to get people laughing," says the right-hander. "Whatever I can do to make someone laugh, I'll pretty much do."

"They give me a hard time about it sometimes," Thomas says of his teammates, "but I know it's all in good fun. I'm goofy, I'm OK with it."

It's that camaraderie that has allowed the Comets to have such success. Thomas is part of a core group that has started at the varsity level for at least three years, including Charlie Reina, Cory Staniforth and Josh Surgeon, and the group tends to take care of each other.

"The majority of the people on our team have been playing together since 13-year-old Babe Ruth," says Thomas, who turns 18 on May 8. "We all know each other and are friends and that helps a lot out on the ballfield."

Friendships aside, Thomas defers much of his spotlight to those same teammates. The loaded Comets make him the envy of any pitcher in the state due to their imposing talent at the plate and in the field.

"I know that if I make a mistake here or there, my guys will always come back me up," says Thomas. "They've always had my back. If I let up for a few innings, they always battle back for me."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com