TORONTO - It’s been a while since Trent Thornton looked this good.
If you want to be specific, July 7 was the last time he had a scoreless outing and June 21st was the last time he struck out more than six batters. The fewest hits he’s allowed in an appearance was one back on May 3.
There was a time when Thornton had a sneaky American League Rookie of the Year case going, and during Wednesday night’s 8-0 win over the Red Sox he found that form again, putting up five zeros with seven punchouts, allowing a single walk and no hits.
At the root of Thronton’s success were two major differentiating factors between the 25-year-old’s night and his work of late: one subtle and one obvious.
The more discreet change was an alteration to his curveball grip that he discovered working with Clay Buchholz during his side session Monday.
“Buchholz has been helping me out with a couple different grips,” he said. “I was throwing it in my last side and it just kind of clicked. That was probably the most effective my curveball has been all year.”
The new breaking ball was responsible for four of Thornton’s seven strikeouts on the night and seven swinging strikes overall. It made Red Sox batters look silly on a couple of occasions, like Brock Holt and Rafael Devers:
“I’ve been using [Buchholz’s] changeup grip as well, so I’m just kind of stealing his repertoire,” Thornton said with a smile. “But it’s been effective and I just want to keep building on that.”
It’s appropriate that Thornton has been drawn to Buchholz and his knowledge. Not only has the grizzled veteran seen it all, he was also a player the rookie loved to watch growing up.
“I was a big Red Sox fan when I was little,” he said. “So I definitely knew who he was.”
A new curveball wasn’t the only change for Thornton on Wednesday. In his 29th MLB appearance he pitched in relief for the first time.
“I’ve come out of the bullpen before in my career. I just kind of treated it like that. I tried to get as deep into the game as possible,” he said. “I felt like I was doing a good job of executing my pitches when I needed to. I felt pretty good tonight.”
Thornton did not get to work until Wilmer Font had blanked the Red Sox through two, continuing his run of keeping teams off the scoresheet early. Because of Font’s work, Thornton was able to begin his night pitching to Red Sox’ ninth hitter Marco Hernandez and avoid pitching to anyone three times. It was textbook opener utilization.
“It was good to see how Trent came out of the bullpen. He was throwing harder and he looked fresh,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “It was perfect because we wanted him to go five innings because we want to shorten up his innings this late in the season. He did a great job. He was on.”
Wednesday’s success was undoubtedly encouraging for Thornton, although the velocity Montoyo referenced fell as the game went on and remains down from earlier in the year. But it comes with unavoidable questions about how to deploy the right-hander going forward.
Is Thornton a guy who isn’t ready to face teams three times through the order? He did enter Wednesday with a 7.33 ERA on the third time around with hitters managing a juicy .290/.405/.505 line.
He was used as a multi-inning reliever in the Arizona Fall League last season, and there are certainly those who haven’t see him as a future starter. His work in the traditional role has been excellent at times this year, but it’s been inconsistent as well. It’s possible the “bulk” guy job is the one Thornton is best suited for. That was a debate that was always going to be had at some point, but this game provided a little proof of concept.
It seems unfair to scrutinize Thornton’s future after an outing this good, but it’s also inevitable. This time of year is all about figuring out who fits and how for the future. On Wednesday, the 25-year-old demonstrated one configuration that looked like it could work.
Those bigger picture questions will ultimately wait for 2020 when the Blue Jays aren’t as concerned about Thornton’s workload. His new curveball might also have something to do with his fate - especially if it winds up being as good as the one that helped Buchholz carve out a 13-year MLB career.
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