TIFTON — Imagining a better week for local baseball players would be extremely tough.

A dream came true for Georgia Tech’s Connor Thomas last Tuesday. That same dream came true for West Georgia’s Cade Marlowe Wednesday. Their names were called in the Major League Baseball draft, Thomas’ in the fifth round by the St. Louis Cardinals, Marlowe’s in the 20th by the Seattle Mariners.

Thursday, two days after St. Louis picked him, Thomas made it official.

“I’m going to sign with the Cardinals,” he said.

Thomas had the option of staying in school. He was a fourth year junior at Georgia Tech, which meant he could have turned down the offer, pitched his senior year and been eligible to be drafted in 2020 by another team.

“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in,” said Marlowe. “This morning (Thursday) when I woke up, it kinda hit me.”

Marlowe flew out Friday to Arizona. He’ll be in minicamp there for a couple of weeks before the Mariners formally assign him a spot. Marlowe said his options include staying in Arizona with the AZL Mariners (based in Peoria) or the Everett (Wash.) AquaSox, who play Class A short season in the Northwest League.

Thomas said he was meeting with the Cardinals this weekend, where he will learn about his first stop in the St. Louis farm system. Rookie level teams are at Johnson City (Tenn.) and Jupiter (Fla.). The Redbirds have a short season Class A team at State College, Pa.

Draft day for both men was a matter of watching and waiting. “I knew I was going in the draft,” said Thomas. “I didn’t know how high.”

Major League Baseball splits its draft up into three days. The first two rounds were held Monday, rounds 3-10 Tuesday and the remaining 30 on Thursday.

Day One came and went. Adley Rutschman of Oregon State went to the Baltimore Orioles as the first overall pick. Three players from the Peach State went to various teams.

Tuesday, Thomas’ teammates at Georgia Tech started being picked. Tristin English went to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the third round, then Kyle McCann to the Oakland Athletics in the fourth. Finally, it was his turn. Family and friends were with him.

“I almost had tears in my eyes,” said Thomas. “It was a weight lifted off my shoulders, something I’ve worked for for a long time.”

“I had two sleepless nights leading up to the draft,” said Thomas. After his name was called, “I slept like a rock.”

Marlowe had to wait a bit longer. Tuesday became Wednesday. His eyes were glued to the screen as each individual pick was announced. “I was watching the tracker,” he said. At about the 15th round, he heard he might be taken soon. “I was watching and waiting for the call,” said Marlowe. Then his phone rang. It was the Mariners.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Marlowe. “I’m just humbled to say that I’m a part of the elite baseball players.”

It may come as a surprise that while both were stars in high school, neither gave much thought to his professional future until a year ago.

Marlowe had already been named Mr. Wolf at West Georgia, an honor given to the school’s top student-athlete. He’d been named first team Gulf South Conference following a season with a .366 average, 70 hits and 50 runs batted in.

It was only during 2018 when he began to realize that he might have a shot at the big leagues. Marlowe was playing for the Savannah Bananas in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer league.

“Last summer when I was playing with the Savannah Bananas I kind of got word from the head coach (Tyler Gillum) that some scouts were coming out to watch a few of us on the team and I was one of those few,” he said.

Marlowe hit .309 with the Bananas, with 51 hits in 44 games. When baseball started back up this spring at West Georgia, he batted .389 with five homers. He also set both the single season and career mark for stolen bases. Marlowe swiped 46 bags in 51 attempts in 2019.

Thomas did not start thinking about it until reflecting on his sophomore season. In 2018, he pitched his way to a 7-4 record and an ERA of 3.34. He threw three of Georgia Tech’s four complete games with accuracy so pinpoint that he struck out 106 batters and walked 10.

“I had a pretty good season last season, my sophomore season of college,” said Thomas. “I just told myself, ‘Man, if I do that season again, I’ll start having a pretty good shot of being drafted pretty high.’”

This season was essentially a duplicate of last. His ERA fell to 3.11, though strikeouts and walks were nearly the same 103 and 19, respectively. Thomas threw three more complete games and finished with a dazzling 9-2 mark. In addition, he merited second team All-American from Collegiate Baseball and all-ACC honors.

“It worked out pretty well,” he said.

Thomas’ appearance might belie his success. The Yellow Jackets list him at 5’11”, 173 pounds, far from the power-pitching frames of physical giants like Randy Johnson, Chris Sale and C.C. Sabathia. He makes up for that with control.

“He’s very methodical,” said Kyle Kirk, Thomas’ high school head coach at Tift County, who said calling pitches for him was a breeze. “Whatever I called I knew was going to hit the spot.”

Kirk said he knew he had a special player from the start. Fortunately, he was able to bring Thomas along slowly. His varsity appearances as a freshmen were in relief and he had only a spot start or two as a sophomore.

Then came 11th grade.

“His junior year, he came out of nowhere,” said Kirk. “He was dominant.”

Kirk provided stats for that season. Thomas went 8-1 with a microscopic 0.67 ERA. True to form, he struck out 95 batters and walked eight. Thomas battled injuries he senior season, but held the opposition to a .194 batting average against him.

Thomas’ ability can bring to mind Greg Maddux. Kirk said there were times he told Thomas that he needed a quick inning. Thomas would be through in nine pitches. He also had a 70-minute seven-inning complete game win over Lee County in 2015, scattering three hits.

Thomas’ perseverance has become his advice: “Don’t let anybody say you’re too small.”

Brad Porter coached Marlowe at Tiftarea before accepting a job at Valdosta High in 2017. As a senior Marlowe hit .519 for the Panthers. From the leadoff spot, he crushed 11 home runs (including a grand slam), drove in 36 runs and scored 54. No slouch on the mound, Marlowe struck out 73 batters in just over 70 innnings.

“Talent was never an issue,” said Porter. Marlowe’s work on his body helped push him over the top, he said. “He’s definitely grown physically into a player who can play at any level,” said Porter.

The two maintain a close relationship.

“From going to the gym in high school, even on game days at 5:30 in the morning. It’s all been worth it. Working nonstop in the cage, running sprints, doing defensive work. I have no regrets,” said Marlowe.

“Coach Porter, he’s a great guy, a great coach and a great friend to me. He’s done more than I can ever ask for out of a coach. Coach Porter’s the best.”

Porter described Marlowe as “one of the hardest working young men I’ve ever coached” and “one of most intelligent,” and deserving of all his accolades. Almost at the same time Seattle picked him, Marlowe was named to the second team of the Google Cloud All-American Division II baseball team.

“I’m grateful my son got an opportunity to watch Cade play,” said Porter.

Thomas feels the same about Kirk’s role in his development.

“Coach Kirk believed in me. He gave me a shot at the varsity as a freshman.” Thomas pitched in the playoffs against Wheeler. That faith, he said, helped drive him. “It really helped me keep improving.”

College fine-tuned the abilities of Marlowe and Thomas. They are grateful for the work of their coaches at West Georgia and Georgia Tech.

“My coaches [at West Georgia] were unbelievable,” said Marlowe. “Coach (Skip) Fite, Coach (Jeff) Smith … Coach (Ben) Morgan, they all helped me along through the process, knowing what to expect. They were all great.”

Thomas said, “Coach (Jason) Howell is probably the biggest influence on my career,” he said. Howell is Georgia Tech’s pitching coach. “He taught me to develop my pitches better, to learn how to control my emotions maybe and help me be a better man.”

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