Blue Jays’ veteran arms proving experience still matters in rebuild

Clay Buchholz went four innings and gave up four runs on seven hits in a 7-4 loss to the Red Sox Thursday.

TORONTO – As the only freshman pitcher on the Toronto Blue Jays to go wire-to-wire this season, Trent Thornton has benefitted from the presence of veterans like Clay Buchholz, Clayton Richard and Matt Shoemaker more than most.

"For rookies, it’s always about the roller-coaster in your first year, for the most part," said the 25-year-old, who leads the team in starts at 28 and innings pitched at 139.1. "Just being able to talk to them, like, ‘Hey, have you ever gone through this,’ and them being able to take you through their thought process and how they approached things, I’ve learned so much.

"Especially Buch," he continued. "I’ve been in his back pocket as much as I can. He just teaches me little things I’d never even thought about as far as approach to hitters, sequencing. I don’t want to go too much into detail about it, but the attack plan is something I’ve changed, for sure, the way I go about facing hitters, setting them up. I just want to take that and run with it."

In that way, the trio of veteran starters have contributed far more to the 2019 Blue Jays than the numbers will ever show. Richard, unceremoniously dumped Thursday on his 36th birthday to make room on the 40-man roster for Elvis Luciano, was described by Thornton as the best teammate he’s ever had, a view he’s far from alone in sharing.

"He was a good influence," said Buchholz.

Manager Charlie Montoyo said the left-hander ended up the odd man out because it’s uncertain if he’ll recover from a lat strain in time to pitch again this year and the Blue Jays needed to maintain a volume of innings on the roster.

Then, unprompted, Montoyo added, "He was great. He was great at the beginning helping with everybody here. Great, great, great guy."

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That’s five greats, if you’re scoring at home. Richard earned each one of them for the way he gutted through persistent knee issues to give all he had in 10 starts, while pouring into the players around him.

His impact will persist far beyond the here and now.

The same goes for Buchholz, who allowed four runs on seven hits and a walk over four innings in a 7-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox, his first outing against his former team. Had a sliding Billy McKinney been able to squeeze a Marco Hernandez fading liner in the second instead of having it bounce out of his glove for a two-run double that opened the scoring, his ninth start for the Blue Jays might have looked much different.

"Billy came up to me and tried to apologize two or three times and I told him, ‘You don’t ever have to apologize to me. I know you’re not out there trying to do something to cause me runs.’ That’s not what the game is about," said Buchholz. "They feel bad but if I make a better pitch in that scenario, the ball doesn’t even get hit there so I can take the blame for all that. Everybody is out there grinding. Everybody wants to win every game. It doesn’t happen that way. You’ve got to go through a learning phase and this is a learning phase for this club right now."

That’s the type of teammate stuff you want in your clubhouse.

Even while pitching through traffic Thursday, Buchholz mixed and matched five pitches, relying most heavily on a cutter he threw 20 times along with 16 changeups, 15 four-seamers, 15 curveballs and 14 two-seamers.

This is what the array looked like:

Courtesy: Baseball Savant

"I’m just trying to miss barrels, that’s really all it is," said Buchholz. "Throughout the lineup, they’ve got guys that will take pitches, they’ll foul pitches off and if you give them different looks each time they come up, not necessarily in the same sequence, maybe you get off the barrel that much. The top two hitters in the lineup, Mookie Betts and Brock Holt, those are two professional hitters that I felt like I kept off balance. That being said, I did a little bit of my job today, I didn’t do it all."

Back in the day, Buchholz featured a repertoire more like that of Thornton, which is why the pair have really connected. Thornton will scrutinize every pitch the righty throws during an outing, trying to think the game along with him, and will sometimes run into the clubhouse to check video on a specific pitch.

The exchange of knowledge extends to dugout conversations on days neither is pitching, clubhouse chats and work in side sessions, where Thornton experimented with Buchholz’s curveball grip this week. He then used it a couple of days later to throw five no-hit innings versus Boston on Wednesday.

"That’s what it’s all about," Buchholz said of passing on knowledge. "I’ve been as good as there is and I’ve been as bad, I know both sides of the spectrum and it’s all about how you respond to both good and bad. You have to have a short memory for both. … There are a lot of kids on this team that are going to be around for a long time. If I can have any influence on them, that’s what I’m here for."

Thornton’s grip change was subtle – he essentially turned the ball around, moving his fingers from the seam along the fat part of the horseshoe to the narrow part – but "for some reason, it was just coming out of my hand a lot better."

Trent Thornton’s old curveball grip, left, and the new curveball grip he picked up from Clay Buchholz.

"I looked at the TrackMan numbers on it and I was getting a lot more vertical depth and it was a lot more out of my fastball arm slot," Thornton added. "Before my curveball (release point) was a little bit higher. So I had to make that adjustment where guys weren’t picking it up that easily."

Moments such as those are why veteran presence matters amid a rebuild.

Shoemaker, until a freak knee injury ended his season, provided wisdom and performance. Buchholz is trying to prove that he can still offer both, too. Richard gave the Blue Jays leadership and they used up all his left arm had left before sending him on his way, a clubhouse difference-maker spat out by baseball’s cruel, heartless churn.

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