Blue Jays’ Thornton shows poise and confidence in MLB debut

Rowdy Tellez had a three-run home run to tie the game but the Detroit Tigers came out on top with 4-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

TORONTO — It was a bit of weird day last week in Dunedin when Trent Thornton learned his dream was coming true. Most of the Toronto Blue Jays players and staff were up in Montreal, preparing to play a two-game exhibition series on the eve of the season. A handful of pitchers had hung back in Florida to keep their arms going before everyone reunited in Toronto for opening day. After six weeks of spring training, which had kept the Blue Jays facility active and noisy, the atmosphere was unusually subdued.

Thornton was subdued, too, but in a different way. He’d just emerged from an office where Blue Jays assistant GM Joe Sheehan and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann told him he’d not only made the team, but was going to start the fourth game of the season. Thornton walked back to his locker in a near-empty clubhouse and looked like he’d seen a ghost. Fellow starters Aaron Sanchez and Clayton Richard were both there.

“Yeah, he was just speechless,” Richard said. “I don’t think he knew what to do. It’s such good news that it kind of freezes you.”

“He was white-faced,” Sanchez said. “I was like, ‘Dude, smile — you made the team. It’s happy. Go call your parents.’”

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Thornton did. And Sunday, with dad, Jeff, and mom, Patty, in attendance at Rogers Centre — part of a Thornton family section including sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents — he walked out of the Blue Jays dugout, hopped over the third base line, and took the mound to throw his first big-league pitch. A little more than an hour later, he was walking back to that dugout after five scoreless frames, beginning his major-league career with an absolute gem, long before the Blue Jays went on to lose, 4-3, in 11 innings.

“That was awesome. It was pretty much everything that I’ve dreamed of ever since I was four-years-old,” Thornton said afterwards, his trademark glasses resting on the brim of his cap. “I was able to go out there and kind of show I belong here. And having my family there to witness that was really special.”

It was a brilliant result considering the circumstances. Anybody would be nervous ahead of their debut, but Thornton had to make his while carrying a scoreless streak inherited from the three starters that preceded him.

Marcus Stroman, Matt Shoemaker, and Aaron Sanchez combined for a franchise-record 19 shutout innings against the Tigers over Toronto’s first three games, handing Thornton the baton for Sunday’s matinee. That’s some pressure for a 25-year-old rookie. But if you ask Richard, who’s in his 11th MLB season, he’ll tell you that stress was going to exist regardless.

“Any time you make your debut, there’s so much pressure, so much new, so much everything,” Richard said. “No matter what the circumstances, the experience was always going to be unique. Everything’s going to go fast — you know that.”

So, of course, Thornton got jobbed on his first pitch of the afternoon, throwing a strike that was called a ball. And of course, he got BABIP’ed on his next one, as Thornton broke Jeimer Candelario’s bat with a heater in on the hands, only to watch the ball flare up and over the infield’s left side, falling into no man’s land with an exit velocity of 55.9-m.p.h.

“It’s kind of funny,” Thornton said. “My first appearance in college, the first batter I faced, I gave up a solo home run. So, I’m like, ‘Oh gosh, I gave up a broken bat hit to the first guy.’ I’m like, ‘Hopefully it doesn’t go that way.’”

It didn’t, as Thornton remained poised and confident, shortening his exaggerated leg kick with a runner on first and coming back to strike out the heart of Detroit’s order — Nick Castellanos, Miguel Cabrera, and Niko Goodrum — in succession.

And he carried on from there, eventually retiring 11 Tigers in a row — six via strikeout — before Goodrum broke the string with a single in the fourth. But Thornton got Christin Stewart to take a called third strike fastball to end the inning, and blew another heater by Mikie Mahtook in the fifth, setting a club record with eight strikeouts in an MLB debut.

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“He looked awesome, man,” said Rowdy Tellez, who hit a game-tying, pinch-hit, three-run shot in the eight. “I know when I made my debut I was blacked out, don’t remember any of my at-bats. I mean, it was just crazy. But that guy looked like he was a 10-year vet. Super comfortable, executed all his pitches.”

The Blue Jays were hoping to get five innings out of Thornton, who was working with a pitch count of around 80, and that’s exactly what he provided, finishing his day with nothing but the two singles allowed. Only 9 of the 17 batters he faced managed to put the ball in play, and just three did so with an exit velocity above 95-m.p.h.

Thornton leaned on his two best pitches for most of the afternoon, using his 94-m.p.h. riding fastball up in the zone to set up his 81-m.p.h. high spin rate curveball at the knees. His catcher, Luke Maile, only got to Thornton’s 84-m.p.h. change-up and 88-m.p.h. cutter a few times. But Thornton’s day was going so well, he didn’t particularly need them.

“Maile called a really good game. Fastball was working pretty good,” Thornton said. “I want to prove to everybody that I belong up here. And I think I started off on a good note.”

When it was all over, Richard and Sanchez were there to congratulate him, just like they were a week ago in Dunedin. Earlier this weekend, Sanchez made sure to remind Thornton to grab a ball for his mantle. Sanchez has his — Richard does, too, plus the lineup card from his first major-league start. It all goes so fast, it’s easy to forget little things like that.

“He was super appreciative of that. He came up to me — ‘Hey, dude, thanks for telling me to get the ball. I would never have even thought of that if you didn’t say something,’” Sanchez said. “I went through that, too. Now, being able to shed light to the young cats doing it for the first time — it’s super cool.”

It was also Sanchez who clued Thornton into that scoreless innings streak from Toronto’s starters, which has now stretched to 24. That’s the longest streak since the Atlanta Braves went 25 to start the 1994 season. Always nice to have a little reminder before your first big-league start. No pressure or anything.

“After Sanchez was done throwing yesterday, he goes, ‘Hey man, don’t mess it up,’” Thornton said. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. He goes, ‘Do you realize that the starters have a scoreless streak?’ And I was like, ‘No, but now I do.’ I guess there’s like 24 or something like that. So, that’s a pretty good start for the starters. That’s pretty cool.”

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