TEMPE, Ariz. -- He'd already fallen in love with the game in his native Australia, but the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympic Games clinched it. He'd just turned 16, and Rich Thompson knew this was what he wanted to do with his life. "I was the batboy for the U.S. in the gold medal game against Cuba," said Thompson, a 23-year-old right-hander making a strong bid for a bullpen job with the Angels. "That was such a great time for our country -- and for the U.S., of course, when it beat Cuba that day. "I started playing at age 5, T-ball. I was a position player, an infielder and outfielder, before I signed with the Angels [in 2002]. I'd come in and pitch an inning or two at the end of games."
Armed with a fastball that hits 94 mph, a sharp curve and a changeup, Thompson was dominant at Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Salt Lake in 2007 (2.10 ERA, 82 strikeouts, 20 walks in 73 innings), earning a September look by the Angels. He gave up eight earned runs in seven innings. Thompson had been in the Angels' system for two seasons, reaching high Class A Rancho Cucamonga when he helped the Aussies claim a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Games. He pitched three innings against Greece and got one out against Chinese Taipei. "We beat [Daisuke] Matsuzaka [and Japan], 1-0, to get in the gold medal game," Thompson said. "There were a lot of big leaguers in the Games. I think we learned something in the 2000 Games, about not getting caught up too much in the atmosphere. It's the Olympics, but it's still a baseball game." Thompson was disappointed recently when Australia fell short in a qualifying tournament in Taiwan of earning a trip to Beijing for the 2008 Games. "It's a shame, not being able to go over to defend our silver medal," Thompson said. "A lot of the guys were really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, the tournament came at a bad time with so many of us in [Spring Training] camp and unable to get away." Thompson has racked up six consecutive scoreless innings since yielding three runs in his Cactus League debut against the White Sox in Tucson. His ERA is 3.86, and he has six strikeouts in seven innings. Keeping pace: Jason Bulger, another right-handed power pitcher gunning for a bullpen job, delivered two perfect innings to finish a victory over the Giants on Thursday. Reducing his spring ERA to 5.14, Bulger demonstrated the mid-90s heater and hard slider that made him a No. 1 pick by Arizona in 2001. He had a 2.84 ERA for the Angels in September, with eight strikeouts against three walks in 6 1/3 innings.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.