Milwaukee's Tyler Thornburg embraces relief role

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By Todd Rosiak
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, April 25, 2014

MILWAUKEE--If Tyler Thornburg was ever truly bothered by being bumped from the Milwaukee Brewers’ rotation in favor of free-agent signee Matt Garza in the offseason, he appears to have gotten over it quickly.

A lights-out start as a reliever can do that—especially as a key member of a bullpen that’s among the best in baseball and a big reason behind the Brewers’ major-league-leading 16-6 start.

“I get pumped up in big situations,” said Thornburg, who is 2-0 with a minuscule 0.73 earned run average and 0.73 WHIP through 12 1/3 innings of work entering a three-game weekend series with the Chicago Cubs at Miller Park.

“I like being in close games; obviously there’s a little bit more adrenaline going in. Things have been going well, and you try to ride it out as long as you can.”

Thornburg has been getting his chances in those high-leverage situations a little less than a month after the Brewers broke camp in Phoenix, with the right-hander making the team as one of the final two pitchers along with Wei-Chung Wang.

But while Wang is in a unique situation as a 21-year-old Rule 5 draftee with no major-league experience, Thornburg was a fairly well-known commodity to Milwaukee brass—a young, hard-throwing swingman who had bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen since first coming up in July 2012.

Thornburg had two stints last season in Milwaukee, posting a 3-1 overall record with a 2.03 ERA in 18 games. His numbers as a starter were outstanding as he went 2-1 with a 1.47 ERA in seven turns. All seven were quality starts (minimum of six innings, three or fewer earned runs).

He also allowed a lone home run, as a reliever.

What was head-scratching was how well Thornburg had fared in the big leagues after going 0-9 with a 5.79 ERA in 15 starts at Class AAA Nashville. Nevertheless, his last four starts in September convinced the Brewers he deserved a shot to become the team’s No. 5 starter heading into 2014.

Until the unexpected signing of Garza in late January that is.

That gave the Brewers a clear-cut top three of Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse and Garza atop their rotation and Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada at the back end, leaving Thornburg—who had been eyed by the New York Mets in a proposed trade for first baseman Ike Davis—wondering what role he’d wind up filling.

His spring-training numbers weren’t great—1-2, 5.82 ERA, 1.35 WHIP and a team-high six homers allowed—but he showed enough to convince the decision-makers he’d be more valuable to them in the bullpen than back in Nashville starting games.

 with no guarantee he’d make it back in that capacity this season.

The lone run charged to Thornburg this season came in his first appearance on April 1 as he mopped up in a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves.

He registered his first win after pitching a scoreless 10th in a 7-6, 11-inning victory in Boston on April 5, picked up his second win four days later in Philadelphia and has since posted holds in four of his last five outings. In three of those games he served as the setup man for closer Francisco Rodriguez with Brandon Kintzler on the 15-day disabled list.

At one point, Thornburg had retired 21 batters consecutive batters over seven appearances, the Brewers’ longest streak since Derrick Turnbow retired 22 in 2005.

In a bullpen full of great stories—Rodriguez with nine saves, Will Smith and Zach Duke providing left-handed relief now seen in Milwaukee in some time—Thornburg might well be the most interesting of all.

“There’s a difference,” said manager Ron Roenicke of Thornburg’s current confidence level. “The first time he was in the big leagues, it’s different from that. It’s being up here and succeeding in really tight spots like he has, both as a starter and reliever.”

A third-round draft pick of the Brewers in 2010, Thornburg admitted in the past to having a tough time bouncing back and forth between starting and relieving without an end game in sight. Now he’s finding success by focusing on succeeding at the task at hand.

“It’s one of those things that the toughest thing is bouncing around and not getting used to one thing,” he said. “I feel like as long as I can get used to one thing—if I can get used to being a reliever, I can do a really, really good job. If I’m used to being a starter, I can do a really good job.

“That’s ultimately not my decision, where I am. I’m not trying to worry about that as much. I’m just trying to thrive in the situation I’m in.”

What about the future, though?

The Brewers hold a team option on Gallardo for next season, Lohse enters the final year of his deal next season and Estrada is pitching on a one-year contract. There’s also the great unforeseen of injuries.

With three plus pitches, including a fastball that’s averaging just shy of 94 mph, and experience, Thornburg would figure to be at the top of the list of in-house starting options.

“I think it’s the need and what it looks like next year or the year after,” Roenicke said. “Who we re-sign; are there any free agents out there? It’s hard to say where he ends up. Things change year to year. We may have a plan right now and say we’d love to keep this guy in the bullpen and all of a sudden, a trade here or a free agent there, then you see if he can start again.”

Thornburg admits that, all things being equal, he’d prefer to start. But he’s also experiencing how valuable a lights-out reliever can be to a team with big aspirations.

“I mean, I honestly feel like throwing 200 innings a year to help your team win baseball games is going to do a little bit more than throwing 80,” said Thornburg. “Yeah, ultimately, I’d like to be a starter just because I could help the team win more with that many innings.

“But again, the late innings decide a ton of ball games.”

Whatever role Thornburg winds up in long term, he has but one goal.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It’s just the type of person I am. I’m kind of a perfectionist, so I don’t take anything less than being the best. Whatever type of role I’m in, I want to be the absolute best at it.

“Not only on the team; I want to be one of the best, period.”

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