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After early season struggles, Thomas finds offensive rhythm

“Coming up to the plate is Jake Thomas, the team’s best hitter — arguably the team’s best hitter,” David Underweiser, announcing Sunday’s game for America East TV, quickly corrected himself.

There was a scoff in the media box.

“Arguably?”

The left fielder entered his junior year coming off an explosive sophomore season that garnered national recognition and first-team honors, ostensibly eliminating the need for that diplomatic qualifier, “arguably.”

Named to the first-team ABCA All-Northeast Region after tying for second in the country with a .517 on-base percentage and leading the America East in batting average (.371), slugging percentage (.522) and walks (45) — as well as, of course, on-base percentage — Thomas was a shoe-in for 2014 AE Player of the Year predictions.

And that sort of prestige comes at a price.

“I think that because of Jake’s reputation that he built in the conference, people are very careful in how they pitch to him,” BU head coach Tim Sinicki said. “I think that teams are keenly aware that they’d rather have someone else on our team beat them instead of letting Jake be the one to get them.”

That attention could very well explain the struggle Thomas experienced out of the gates this season, mirroring the team’s collective offensive dormancy. Defensively, the team has remained amongst the top in the nation, with a 39th-ranked .974 fielding percentage. But offensively, neither Thomas nor the AE’s reigning champ could replicate last season’s success in those early weeks.

Sinicki guessed that the team itself has been targeted as conference rivals are eager to knock off last year’s title winner.

And Thomas? Though he doesn’t quite believe pitchers are catering to him differently, he does think they keep in mind to whom they’re throwing.

“Now that [pitchers] know who I am, they take their time and make sure that they make the right pitch and don’t make any mistakes,” Thomas said. “So it’s been a little tougher [this season], but I have great teammates around me, so it makes it much easier.”

But both Thomas and the team have, in the past month, seen an outburst of consistent success. The team has taken six of its past seven games by an aggregate score of 48-26 and Thomas has accrued four home runs over a two-week stretch — just one shy of the five he produced through all of last season — to bump up his total to a conference-leading six.

“I’m just getting the right pitches,” Thomas explained. “I’ve felt really good the past couple of weeks. The swing’s been there, my head’s been there, and I just got hot.”

Prior to this weekend against Hartford, he led the conference with a .545 slugging percentage and ranked second with a .436 on-base percentage and 29 RBIs. He had raised his batting average from under the .300 mark, where it stood in the early season, to .325.

Thomas saw staggering success specifically in the ninth week of play, during which Binghamton faced Cornell and hosted a three-game series against Maine. He hit .615, plated nine runs, slammed two homers and posted a .722 on-base clip, earning AE Player of the Week honors.

“I think it’s been a little bit of an adjustment period for him to realize that teams are going to pitch to him differently than they have in the past,” Sinicki said. “And sometimes when that happens, you just have to get comfortable with that, make some adjustments in your approach and then kind of let your natural ability take over, which I think he’s finally doing.”

Despite the honors, the acclaim and the statistical success, Thomas maintains his modesty. With last weekend’s games against Hartford — which led the conference before dropping two of three to Binghamton — Thomas found himself in a clutch situation in the bottom of the seventh of Sunday’s game: down by two, bases loaded, potential opportunity to get ahead by two.

“I messed up there. I didn’t get the job done. But I have great hitters all around me, so Shaun [McGraw] came through,” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t say there’s any best hitter on the team. I think everyone’s a really good hitter, so I wouldn’t classify myself as the best hitter.”

The fourth man in the lineup did drive a runner in through a fielding error, and senior first baseman Shaun McGraw followed up with a single to tie the score.

Four innings later, the Bearcats (16-20, 8-9 AE) edged out the Hawks (24-16, 10-4 AE) to maintain their fourth-place conference standings. Again, it was McGraw to the rescue with a walk-off RBI single to cap off the weekend with a 4-3 win.

That was by far the closest game of the series. Neither of Saturday’s two allotted much room for competition. In game one, Hartford junior Sean Newcomb cagily protected his conference-leading 1.12 ERA, in which he allowed no runs, scattered three hits and struck out five in six innings en route to a 9-1 victory. The Bearcats requited by routing their visitors in the second, 13-3, behind junior right fielder Zach Blanden’s six RBIs.

Through the two losses delivered by BU, Hartford slunk behind Stony Brook in the conference standings.

“Obviously you feel good any time you knock off the number one seed,” Thomas said. “It shows that we’re just as good as any other team in the conference. We just have to make sure we stay hot at the right time come tournament time. We’ve just got to keep rolling.”

And with Thomas’ primary concern being to defend Binghamton’s title with his team, he’s on the right track. Sinicki expressed his confidence that Thomas has grown accustomed to his role in the team and to the changes that this season has dealt him.

“I think that’s where he’s at right now. He’s finally getting comfortable, back to being the old Jake Thomas, and he’s settled in with how people are pitching to him,” Sinicki said. “And I hope that down the last [three] weeks here in the season, that he continues to be comfortable and swing the bat like he’s capable of.”