Blue Jays rookie Thornton’s struggles part of major-league learning process

Michael Chavis hit a grand slam in the first and the Red Sox scored five runs in an inning twice to beat the visiting Blue Jays 10-8.

BOSTON — Until recently, Trent Thornton had never pitched against the Boston Red Sox. Now that he has faced them three times in a 25-day span, Thornton has probably seen enough to last a while.

Atop the Boston batting order, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez are powerful, complete hitters. Further down, the likes of Michael Chavis and Christian Vazquez ensure there are no easy innings. Combined, this group scores more runs than any team in baseball. This isn’t a lineup you want to see on a near-weekly basis.

The first time he faced the Red Sox, Thornton pitched pretty well, limiting the defending World Series winners to two runs over 6.1 innings on June 21. Since then, he has faced the Red Sox twice more. Thornton has recorded a total of 12 outs. The Red Sox have scored a total of 12 runs. Hey, no one said pitching in the AL East would be easy.

Facing the Red Sox Monday, Thornton made his shortest start of the season, lasting just 1.1 innings while allowing five runs. A parade of relievers followed, including an effective Edwin Jackson, but by then too much damage was done and the Red Sox cruised to a 10-8 win.

“I was trying to nibble too much and be too cute,” Thornton said. “When you’re behind 1-0, 2-0, those are hitters’ counts. They do damage in counts like that. I just wasn’t good tonight.”

“When you pitch behind in the count to good hitters, you’re going to pay the price,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “His command wasn’t there.”

The last time he faced the Red Sox, Thornton appeared to be tipping pitches, making life a little too easy for an already formidable lineup. The Blue Jays reviewed video after Thornton’s July 2 start against Boston, believing that he was unintentionally tipping his hand, particularly when coming set from the stretch.

A mid-game adjustment occurred that day, with Thornton lowering his hands in an apparent effort to conceal the tell. On Monday, the Red Sox hitters chased him from the game even earlier, but afterwards the Blue Jays attributed his struggles to a lack of command.

“I don’t think (tipping is) what it is,” Montoyo said. “He’s just pitching behind in the count and against good clubs like that you can’t pitch behind in the count.”

“Obviously I didn’t have my command,” Thornton added. “I walked three guys in one inning which is pretty uncharacteristic.”

No doubt it is. At the same time, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the Red Sox have something on Thornton. And even if the Blue Jays suspect as much, they’d gain little from announcing as much publicly and basically inviting scouts around the league to seek out a potential tell.

Short-term, it’s frustrating for a team that has lacked stability in its rotation all season long. Bigger-picture, this is part of the learning process for a rookie pitcher with a chance to contribute to the next contending Blue Jays team. When asked about the possibility of sending Thornton to the minors, Montoyo dismissed the idea.

“I don’t think that’s an option right now,” Montoyo said. “I think he’ll be fine.”

The return of Billy McKinney went about as well as the Blue Jays could have hoped, providing a bright spot even as the Blue Jays fell to 35-60. Hours after being recalled to take the place of the demoted Rowdy Tellez, McKinney sent a Rick Porcello fastball 402 feet to right-centre field for a two-run homer.

After talking to Justin Smoak, Eric Sogard and hitting coach Guillermo Martinez, McKinney lowered hands at the plate and started standing more upright in the batter’s box. Those adjustments allowed him to return to the majors feeling strong physically and mentally.

“I was just trying to have a positive mindset,” McKinney said. “I know it’s not too easy sometimes, but a positive attitude just changes everything. When you have a positive attitude it really helps to work toward something. That’s what I was really trying to do is focus on my craft and be positive.”

Playing in the majors for the first time since June 26, McKinney started in right field. Meanwhile, Sogard was the designated hitter while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. rested (Sogard got three hits, of course, raising his season batting average to .302). With Tellez now in the minors, expect the Blue Jays to rotate players through the DH spot, providing partial days off as needed.

On a night they allowed 10 runs, the Blue Jays didn’t need their closer, but Ken Giles wasn’t available to pitch because of nerve inflammation caused by a massage. Giles, who last pitched on July 4, threw off flat ground Monday and hopes to test his arm off a mound Tuesday. In the meantime, the status of a top trade candidate remains uncertain — far from ideal for a team that would ideally convert Giles into a haul of controllable talent.

Of course, acquiring minor-league talent is one thing. Getting results at the highest level is another. On Monday, Thornton and McKinney offered further reminders that improvement doesn’t happen in a straight line. As nice as certainty sounds sometimes, it’s not a luxury rebuilding teams can allow themselves.

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