Andrew Scheiner /Daily Journal
Thomas Neal is San Jose's first baseman and one of the Giants top minor league prospects.
San Jose — Thomas Neal is no stranger to playing along side big-name teammates, but if he keeps hitting the way he is, it’s going to be hard for the left fielder to keep a low profile much longer.
At the outset of the season, Neal was the only player amid a superstar-laden San Jose Giants lineup that had yet to really garner national attention. That changed last Tuesday though, when Neal hit for the cycle in a 17-7 win at Lancaster.
MinorLeagueBaseball.com responded by featuring the achievement as its cover story; a deserved honor after Neal surfaced as one of the top hitters in San Jose throughout April.
"I’ve always felt like I can compete with the best of them,” Neal said. "It’s just if I get the chance.”
Due to the strength of the San Jose offense — which features high-profile prospects such as Buster Posey and Angel Villalona — Neal found himself in a new role to start the 2009 season: Hitting at the bottom of the batting order. He responded by hitting .362 with four homeruns in April.
"It was kind of a shock (to be hitting low in the order), but at the same time it doesn’t really matter where you hit,” Neal said. "Because the lineup is so talented, there are going to be guys on base when you come up. You’re going to have a chance to drive guys in.”
Neal has frequently hit in the nine-hole this year, as he did in going 3-for-4 on April 27; the night before he hit for the cycle. San Jose manager Andy Skeels subsequently moved Neal to the five-spot the night he hit for the cycle, and into the cleanup spot for the series finale the following day.
"Someone’s got to hit [at the bottom of the order], but Thomas, he’s been tremendous this season,” Skeels said. "He’s an extremely hard worker, and he loves to play baseball.”
In this his second full season of professional baseball, Neal now looks to sustain his success. He started last year with a hot April as well, hitting .324 with six homeruns at Augusta of the South Atlantic League. What followed however, was the worst hitting slump of his life, as he hit just .217 in May. Hence, the reason why going 3-for-9 with two doubles over the weekend series with Modesto to start this May is key.
"Last year I learned a lot about how to deal with that,” Neal said. "Instead of having a slump go a month and a half, I learned how to take it one day at a time…. For me, it takes one game of consistent at bats. Say I go 0-for-4. It takes one at bat (the next day) and everything just kind of clicks, and I can turn everything around.”
Neal was drafted out of Poway High School — alums Dave Smith, Phil Plantier and Tony Gwynn Jr. have all played in the Major Leagues — in the 37th round of the 2005 draft. He signed in 2006 out of Riverside Community College as a draft-and-follow.
Two pitchers from that Riverside team are now in pro ball, including one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson. So, Neal knows the ropes for rolling with premium talent. He also knows how to produce among them, having hit .384 with nine homers in his only JUCO season.
"Whenever it was a big situation on the line, you wanted Thomas at the plate,” said Daniel Gutierrez, former Riverside right-hander who now pitches in the Royals system.
Riverside advanced to the Super Regionals of the California Community College postseason in 2006 before being eliminated by Rio Honda. Neal had to wait just two years for a championship though, as he helped the 2008 Augusta GreenJackets to a Sally League title. In fact, all three players who went pro from the 2006 Riverside squad won championships last year. The Mississippi Braves, behind Hanson, won the Southern League championship at Double-A, while Gutierrez paced the Class-A Burlington Bees to a Midwest League crown.
What made 2008 doubly sweet for Neal was that it was something of a recovery year for him. As a right fielder at Low-A Salem-Keizer in 2007, he tore the labrum in his right throwing shoulder. While playing mostly designated hitter and first base last year, he paced the GreenJackets with 81 RBIs and a .444 slugging percentage, and his 15 homeruns ranked second on the team to Villalona.
This season, Neal has moved to left field, where he has quickly regained a reputation as a prolific assist arm. And to compliment his tools, talent and moxie, Neal has long-term ambition.
"I want to make it to the big leagues,” Neal said, "but when I get up there, I don’t want to just make it. I want to make an impact for 15 or 20 years and eventually help the team win a World Series.”