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Marlins find a winner in “Touchdown Tommy”

RHP Tommy Eveld takes us through his unexpected path to pro baseball.

In his short stint with Double-A Jacksonville this season, Eveld struck out 14 batters in 9 2⁄3 innings to go along with a 0.93 ERA.
Photo by John Fountain Photography

The Marlins entered the 2018 season with plans to flip some of their remaining major league veterans for young talent. Not Brad Ziegler—owed a $9 million salary at age 38, he was a sunk cost, not an asset. Then the season began and it looked even more impossible to find a trade partner. Ziegler struggled throughout April and May, briefly holding the closer’s job until a particularly painful loss in San Diego.

He was taken out of that role, and then something funny happened: Brad Ziegler could do no wrong. He emerged as one of the Marlins’ most lights-out relief pitchers at the ideal time, carrying a 0.93 earned run average in June and July combined.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

That re-established success for a guy with such a long track record allowed the Marlins to salvage something out of a bad and expiring contract. On July 31, they made a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks and received right-handed pitcher Tommy Eveld in return.

Eveld’s path to the Marlins organization was definitely unorthodox. He quit baseball in high school, played his way onto the University of South Florida’s football team, and then walked on to the school’s baseball program to restart his baseball career.

While Eveld has never been at the top of prospect lists, he’s done everything in his power to be taken seriously as a future major league reliever. After three professional seasons, he owns a beautiful 1.88 career ERA.

Towards the end of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp’s season, I had the opportunity to ask Tommy all about his journey and find out what sets him apart from other baseball players.

When did you first start playing baseball and what drew your attention to it?

I played when I was younger through tee-ball and little league. In high school, my sophomore year turned my attention to football. And my junior year [at college], got back into baseball because of slow-pitch softball.

Photo by @coachmark123/Twitter

That’s one of the things about you that stands out. You actually moved on from baseball and dedicated your time to football. At what point did football start to enter the frame and why did you decide to commit to football full-time?

I played flag football around the same age I was in t-ball and early little league and when I was 8 started to play tackle football. When I got to high school I just wasn’t getting an opportunity to prove myself on the baseball field. One of the guys in my grade that was a shortstop/pitcher was Lance McCullers. And I guess you could say he’s pretty good at baseball [laughing]. So I realized I had a better shot of playing college football than college baseball so turned my focus to football after sophomore year baseball season on JV.

(A pretty impressive alumni class, wouldn’t you say?)

What were some of the highlights from your time on the Jesuit High School football team?

Personally, I won the Elite 11 golden gun accuracy in 2011, I won an accuracy and a long ball contest at a Tampa invitational camp, I was MVP of a Red Bull Invitational 7-on-7.

As a team, we won the Red Bull tournament, we won a Mel Kiper 7-on-7 tournament, we placed third in the USF 7-on-7 invitational, we won districts my junior and senior year, and my senior year while I was the starting quarterback we only lost one game. It just so happened to be an elimination game.

What was it like walking on to USF’s football program? Could you describe some of the obstacles you faced while you were there?

It was awesome. It really was a great experience. I enjoyed playing for Skip Holtz and Willie Taggart. One of the biggest challenges is just the opportunity to prove yourself. As a walk on your reps are limited. You might only get 3-4 snaps a practice if you get any at all. Sometimes I found myself trying to do too much and force passes in down field to try and prove myself instead of throwing the underneath routes that were open because I wanted to wow the coaches. Which is sort of hit or miss, because when you get two plays and both are either incomplete or intercepted it doesn’t look good at all. But if you throw two touchdowns, you’ll turn some heads. Maybe the next day you’ll get a couple more plays. Other than that and my knee deciding to stop working right when I switched positions, there weren’t many other obstacles. As long as you went to class and followed the coach’s rules everything was fine.

Eveld at football practice.
Photo courtesy of University of South Florida Athletics

You mentioned your knee. What happened there?

I tore my right ACL two times. We switched from a power/pro style offense to more of a spread option offense going into my third season. And I found myself not able to compete at quarterback anymore. The defensive coordinator saw how much effort I put into scout team and I had good ball skills from running occasional routes when the wide receivers got tired. So he told me he would love to have me play free safety. So I switched positions.

Two weeks into being a safety I was running down on a punt at practice and when I was slowing down to tag off on the returner I got hit in the back and suffered my first ACL injury. This was in the spring of 2014. I knew if I didn’t go to summer camp that year I wasn’t going to make the roster and I would be spending my third season on scout team, so I told the trainers I wanted to push the limits on my rehab to make it back for summer camp in four months, ACL recovery is 10-12 months. They advised against it, but they understood.

Three-and-a-half months later after going in for rehab and treatment 2-3 times a day I was running around and cutting again. Everyone was shocked. Even the doctors were a little confused. I had regained all of my strength and confidence. But then during an agility drill out on the turf field I made a cut off my right knee and felt something pop. I wanted to go to summer camp so bad that I was trying to convince the trainers it was just scar tissue. But they said either way I could go to camp.

At that time, me, my brothers and my dad started a slow-pitch team. Which led to me and my brothers playing in a men’s league wood bat league. I was throwing really well for that team. And the guys convinced me to tryout at USF’s baseball team in 2015.

When the football team returned from camp, I sat down with coach Taggart and told him I could help the team more on scout team at wide receiver than at safety because I was a high-energy guy that could run routes all day. And he said he trusted me and that I had the teams best interest at heart so he let me switch positions again to wide receiver. At this point I was playing football Monday to Saturday, slow pitch on Thursday nights and baseball on Sunday afternoons.

Towards the end of that football season I knocked on [head baseball coach] Mark Kingston’s and told him I wanted to try out. So we set up a tryout for January. Made the team, threw alright in 2015, found out I needed a second ACL surgery from the incident I had a year prior on the football field. I hung up my football cleats after my second knee surgery. Played baseball only in 2016 and was drafted by Arizona.

What did you learn from your rehab process and how does that knowledge contribute to the way you prepare physically today?

Going through a major rehab re-emphasized what my dad taught me growing up. You have to work hard. You can’t cut corners and you can’t take short cuts. I’ve always been a hard worker but going through rehab like that two times for the same thing... really really makes you question everything. And to go through that and prove to myself that I wasn’t going to quit and that I wasn’t going to give up makes the hiccups in every day life a lot easier to handle.

When you made the switch, did anything stand out to you, in terms of culture, coaching styles, etc, between baseball and football?

Everything is different. Weight room, intensity of the coaches, intensity of the players. It’s two completely different sports played by two different types of people.

When you get frustrated in baseball, you swing a little harder or try and throw that ball harder which can actually make you off your game. In football, if you get frustrated, you can literally run full speed at a guy and and pretty much fight him for about 6 seconds until the whistle blows. And then do it again 30 seconds later. And as long as he doesn’t make the tackle... you did your job.

Do you bring any aspects of football with you when you get on a baseball field?

Absolutely, the work ethic on and off the field and the intensity. I have and will probably always be a high-intensity pitcher and I pitch better when I get a little mad about something. I play with emotion, and I learned that from football.

In your second college season, you made a huge statistical leap. What contributed to that success and what did you learn about the craft of pitching in that period?

I credit that to the current head coach and former pitching coach Billy Mohl. He sat me down in his office and pulled up my stats about halfway through the season. I was walking two to three guys an inning, striking out almost two an inning and my batting average against was really low. But when guys got hits, they were scoring runs every time. So he coached me to not be afraid to throw to hitters because they can’t hit what I was throwing. At that time, I had like a 13.50 ERA and by the end of that season, got it down [6.11 ERA in 2015]. Then I carried that into my next season.

He taught me to go after hitters because my “stuff” was better than their swings. And I still like to pitch that way now. I hate walking guys. It gives them a free opportunity to score. I like to make guys earn their way on base. And the only opportunity I want to give them to earn it is to beat me.

And I hate losing, so I’m coming with my best stuff in every pitch.

Eveld pitching at USF.
Photo by Travis Pendergrass/Full Focus Photography

Clearly that success was noted by the Diamondbacks organization. What was it like getting your name called at the MLB draft?

It was pretty surreal. I went fishing that morning with a couple of my best friends and my brothers to keep my eyes off the draft trackers and my agent called me to tell me they reached a deal with a team. So we went inside and turned on a computer to watch and listen to it unfold. It was awesome to have one of my once lost childhood dreams of being a professional baseball player come true.

What type of impact did your family have on your journey through football and into professional baseball?

Growing up and all through college, my family was always there to support me. Anything my parents could do to help me out, they did it. No questions asked. I played on the USF football team with my older brother Bobby so that was nice to have a brother on campus and on the same team. And my younger brother and my sister were always coming out to games and sometimes even practice to show their support. Unfortunately, ever since I have signed I have been on the west coast for spring training and almost all of my minor league career, so my family hasn’t been able to do much other than come see me a couple times the past three years. That’s one of the reasons I am thankful to be with a team now that is not only back in the same time zone as my family, but also to be back in the state I was born and raised in.

So you get traded to the Miami Marlins on July 31. Was there any indication prior to the deal that you could be involved in a trade? What was going through your mind once you were told you were headed to the Marlins organization?

No indication at all. I was pumped to finally get promoted to Double-A with the Diamondbacks. That was my goal for the season—to at least get to Double-A. So I was a bit high on life for the seven days I spent on that team. And then I got a phone call, not even realizing it was July 31, the trade deadline, from Arizona’s farm director. All kinds of things were going through my head at that point, but not a trade. So I was very surprised by it.

It was mixed emotions. I was bummed that I was leaving the Diamondbacks. They gave me an opportunity to be a professional baseball player and I had a lot of good friends and coaches there. I was dead set on playing in the big leagues for them.

But once it settled in, that the opportunity to make it to the big leagues with the Marlins was better I got excited about it. All in about an hour. I was coming back to Florida to play for a team that I grew up watching. I knew I wouldn’t have problems meeting new people or getting to know a new team because I’m a pretty outgoing person. So once all that settled in, I was more excited about it all than bummed.

What is the difference in mentality when you come to pitch in relief as opposed to starting a game?

I don’t know [laughing]. I’ve never really been a starter and the couple starts I had in college didn’t go too well. I would have to say you have to pace yourself. Either that or just be in freakishly incredible shape to throw every pitch max effort.

But as a high-intensity reliever, I haven’t had any issues so far with throwing 12-25 pitches max effort. I couldn’t imagine trying to do that for 100-120 pitches.

Your scouting report says you throw a mid-90s fastball with a hard slider along with a curveball and a changeup. But in the California League All-Star game this year you threw a knuckleball. Have you thrown that pitch in-game beforehand? Have you considered making it a regular feature of your arsenal?

I threw it my first season in college. It’s a fun pitch to mess around with or throw it when stats don’t matter, but learning to control a knuckleball and command it in the strike zone is tough. It takes a lot of time and effort. And when I mess with it too much I start to lose feel for my fastball and my slider. So no, I do not throw it currently, but yes, I have thrown it before. Maybe once I lose my fastball, I can be converted to a knuckleball starter.

What type of mental preparation do you make prior to facing specific teams? Do you implement analytics in that process?

I started that this season. Analytics do a great job putting together scouting reports on hitters to where you can have a plan of how to get a hitter out before he gets in the box. Which is just reassuring that what I am getting ready to throw, statistically the hitter can’t hit it. So it takes the doubt factor out of it and just lets me focus on hitting my spots, and making good pitches. Every now and then, you get beat, but if you can hit your spots and make good pitches, statistically the numbers are in your favor as a pitcher.

You will be joining the Salt River Rafters along with a few other Marlins prospects for the Arizona Fall League. What are you looking forward to accomplish there?

First, stay healthy. You can’t play in the big leagues if you are hurt. Second would be to go make pitches and win. I’m too competitive to just go out there for fun. I have fun when I’m winning. And I can make anything into a competition. I don’t even really need a hitter in the box and I’ll still compete with myself to hit spots and make my pitches. Having a hitter in the box just makes it that much more competitive. Because then I’m competing against myself and trying to beat the hitter at the same time. It’s awesome.

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World Series, Game 7, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, tie game, 3-2 count. What pitch are you going to?

Either a fastball at the top of the strike zone, or a slider. Whatever the catcher calls and what’s working that day.

The possibilities of you making the Marlins 25-man roster at some point next season seem pretty high. Is that something that you think of a lot?

That’s out of my control, so I don’t like to get caught up in it. All I can do is go out and make my pitches.

How did the nickname “Touchdown Tommy” come about?

My strength coach out in Hillsboro gave me that nickname my first year in pro ball in the locker room, just messing around because of my background and football and the way I work out in season. Guys on the team started calling me that and coaches and fans started catching wind of it. Before I knew it, the front office for the Hops switched my walkup song from “Hey Y’all” by Aaron Watson to the Monday Night Football theme song and the announcer was announcing me as “Touchdown Tommy” when I would come in to pitch. I threw well that season and it just stuck. So I use that walk-up song still and sort of just embraced the nickname. I like it. It’s got a nice ring to it.

It was an absolute pleasure to interview Tommy Eveld and to learn about his journey to the Marlins organization. I’d like to thank Tommy for being gracious enough for the interview and wish him the best as he continues his journey to the major leagues with the Miami Marlins.

Thank you for reading, until next time!