PORTLAND - In the moments after he had led his team to a Class S semifinals berth by pitching a complete-game gem and sparking a seventh-inning rally at the plate, St. Paul baseball pitcher Julian Thayer had a host of fans waiting to shake his hand and offer him congratulatory remarks.
But there was one fan who stood out above the others, and he has been Thayer’s No. 1 supporter since he stepped on the St. Paul grounds as a freshman two years ago.
Andrew Rinaldi, the 9-year-old son of St. Paul head coach Vic Rinaldi, was never more than a foot away from Thayer’s side after he had jump-started a Falcons rally from down 2-0 to Portland on Saturday by roping a leadoff double that paved the way for three runs in the top of the seventh and a wild 3-2 quarterfinals victory.
“He’s good at pitching,” Andrew said, flashing a smile as he tapped the right wrist of Thayer, inches below the junior’s elbow that was encased in ice after he had thrown 98 pitches, struck out eight Highlanders and allowed just two hits in seven innings. “He pitched great.”
The bond between coach’s son and coach’s star player - who recently was named to his second straight All-State team - extends to off the field, as the two have frequently spent time together playing “MLB: The Show” and other video games online on PlayStation 4.
“He’s great,” Thayer said. “He’s played against a couple of my friends. He’ll text me all the time and say, ‘Hey, you wanna play? You wanna play?’ It’s funny. I love him.”
When Thayer came onto the varsity club as a freshman, Andrew gravitated to him. Thayer would spend a lot of time talking to the younger Rinaldi, and over the past two years, the bond grew stronger.
Whenever Vic returns home from a game his son couldn’t attend, Thayer is the first one Andrew brings up, asking questions such as, “‘Did you guys win? How did J.T. do? Did J.T. pitch? Did J.T. hit a home run?’” Vic says.
“It’s not that he’s not interested in everyone else, but J.T.’s usually the first one he always asks about. … Andrew’s been kind of drawn to him from the start. I don’t know what it was, but Julian’s been really good with him and taken him in a little bit.”
Rinaldi brings Andrew to as many games and practices as allowed by Andrew’s schedule, one filled with travel soccer and travel baseball games. That way, Andrew can get as much experience being around baseball and learn as much as he can from the players and how they play the game.
From day one, Thayer’s talent caught the eye of Andrew who, whether he knew it or not at the time, certainly picked a good player to learn from.
“You obviously want your kids to be around good role models,” Vic said. “And I think Julian definitely has that attribute.”
Thayer has a notoriously strong work ethic, dating back to a forceful freshman season when he hit over .500 with 29 RBI and led the Falcons to the quarterfinals. That continued as a sophomore, as he hit .424 with seven home runs and 28 RBI and also sported a 2.20 ERA in 35 innings pitched in another quarterfinals appearance during his first All-State campaign.
This season, however, Thayer believes he hasn’t played up to his potential and has had what he calls “a down year.” That’s the sort of weight Thayer puts on his own shoulders. Even another All-State performance isn’t quite good enough.
“I just put a lot of pressure on myself sometimes, which isn’t always that good. I’ve just gotta stop doing that and just go out there and have some fun,” Thayer said. “I just wanna go out there and do as much as I can for the team. When I don’t do that, it’s tough.”
Perhaps, Rinaldi says, it’s the fact that he started his career off so hot and set a high standard that makes this season feel not as satisfactory in the stat columns.
But as Rinaldi notes, Thayer has developed a reputation as one of Connecticut’s best hitters. Defenses now play him much further back, setting up close to the outfield fences in many cases, and pitchers in the NVL aren’t as prone to serving him any easy pitches to hit, especially early in counts.
“[Assistant coach Jarrett Stawarz] sometimes gets in his ear and tells him, ‘You’re known now. You’ve been in the league for two years so pitchers are gonna pitch you differently,’” Rinaldi said. “I think he’s learned from it, and I think he’s matured from it, and I think it’s only gonna help him as he gets older and as he gets into college too.”
Three weeks ago, Thayer committed to the University of Rhode Island to continue his baseball career, where he has the ability and drive to become a starter as a freshman.
That is far from Thayer’s mind right now, however, as he looks to get himself and his sixth-seeded Falcons (18-5) into the state championship game with a win over Matthew Cook and No. 2 Coventry (21-2) at 1 p.m. today at Sage Park in Berlin.
“We’re going to the semis, and I’m happy,” Thayer said. “That’s all I wanted. I said at the beginning of the year when I started playing bad that as long as we get our ring I’ll be fine.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org