Thornton settles in, looking like pitcher Toronto hopes he can be

Trent Thornton talked about the struggles of pitching behind an opener, having to start earlier than anticipated against the Yankees.

NEW YORK — By the time Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Trent Thornton started warming up for his outing Sunday, there was already bedlam all around him. Thornton’s opener, Wilmer Font, was imploding on the mound in the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Aaron Judge took Font deep only seven pitches into his day, dropping a hung slider not far from where Thornton was standing beyond the left-centre field wall. A couple walks later, Brett Gardner got a 3-1 fastball on the plate and lobbed it into the right field seats.

This is the sort of thing that can happen when you utilize an opener, as the Toronto Blue Jays often have. It’s worked more often than not — Font entered the outing with a 2.31 ERA and a 4.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 prior openings. But occasionally it’s going to backfire in a very loud way.

"He didn’t have it today," Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said of Font. "And when you don’t have it against a good lineup, you’re going to pay the price."

Yes, this is also the sort of thing that can happen when you play the New York Yankees, who entered Sunday leading baseball with 295 home runs, including 37 in the first inning — the third-most across MLB. Using a hard-throwing reliever like Font in the first could be one way to counter that. But the Yankees have more wins than any team in baseball because they’ve made mincemeat of a lot of similarly hard-throwing relievers throughout the season. Sometimes there’s only so much you can do.

Thornton was meant to enter Sunday’s game in the third inning after two frames from Font. But only a few batters into the first, the call came down to the bullpen for Thornton to get his arm loose. He warmed up for a while as Font was pitching, but then stopped and watched from the bullpen mound, frustrated, unsure how long the inning would take or if he was going to be making an appearance in it.

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It’s not how Thornton wanted to start his day, which ultimately ended with an 8-3 Blue Jays loss. Eventually, Font got out of it, and Thornton went back to his routine before jogging in and beginning his outing in the bottom of the second inning with a four-run deficit.

The first batter? A soft single to short. Two pitches later? A line drive home run to right off the bat of DJ LeMahieu. The deficit grew to six. Did the uncertainty of when his day would actually begin throw him in the early going? Impossible to say. But Thornton did settle in from there, retiring eight in a row, five on groundballs, two with weak pop-ups, and one via strikeout. He looked like the guy the Blue Jays must hope he can be. And a guy who isn’t yet entirely comfortable pitching behind an opener.

"Yeah, it’s something new to me a little bit. And in games like today where you know you’re slotted to come in for the third inning and then you end up coming in for the second, it’s a little bit of an adjustment you have to make," Thornton said. "But you’ve just got to get used to it and make the adjustment quicker.

That’s what this month is about for Thornton, isn’t it? Learning, adjusting, continuing to find out just how he fits into future Blue Jays rosters. He’s undoubtedly something. Meant to begin the season at triple-A Buffalo, he’s ended up leading Toronto in starts (28) and innings pitched (149.1). He’s had impressive runs of success, like the back-to-back gems he spun on the road against the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox in June, and a month of August in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer in five of his six starts.

But he’s had his rough patches, too, like a pair of tough outings against the Red Sox in July that sandwiched a brief IL stint, and an August blow-up against the Tampa Bay Rays that took away from his success the rest of the month. It’s clear that Thornton can be a contributor to a good big-league staff. The question is, in what role?

Maybe that’s why the Blue Jays have used him behind an opener his last three times out. Maybe they want to see what that looks like. The club has said it wants to manage his workload in a season that’s already seen him set a career-high for innings pitched. But you can always limit innings and pitches thrown regardless of when a guy begins his outing. Pitching behind an opener or not is irrelevant to that.

And Thornton had success with an opener his last two times out, allowing only one earned run over 4.2 innings against the Rays and shutting out the Red Sox over five innings. Maybe in a future Blue Jays rotation Thornton’s the No. 4 or 5 and behind an opener once a week.

That’d be a nice outcome. But there remains a possibility he could be something more. Sunday, he was actually much better than his final line — five innings, five hits, four runs — would suggest. Mixing and matching with four-seamers, cutters, change-ups, and breaking balls, Thornton avoided barrels and lived on ground balls and pop-ups. His change-up was particularly effective, which is an encouraging sign as he continues to develop the pitch he made a significant tweak to a few starts ago.

"I’m just starting to finally execute pitches a little bit better," he said. "I threw my change-up probably more than any other pitch today, and it was pretty effective. That’s a good sign, just continuing to build on that."

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

He had to prove his resiliency, too, and not only in the early going. He was robbed of an out in his fourth inning, when replay review determined Cavan Biggio’s foot was off the bag for a force out at second, which led to the Yankees scoring a couple cheap runs in the frame. But Thornton settled back in after that and retired his final five batters.

It wasn’t the kind of day that will help his ERA, which is now 5.00 on the season. But it was one in which he showed the raw stuff (his fastball average 94-m.p.h.), command (he didn’t issue a walk) and determination to overcome adversity that should allow him to be a successful starter in the majors without an opener.

"That’s good to see," Montoyo said. "He couldn’t do that at the beginning and he’s growing up through the season. Now, he knows if he comes out and relaxes he’s going to get out of trouble and he did today against a good lineup. A couple of pitches went out. But other than that, I thought he pitched well."

Of course, you could imagine Thornton as a high-leverage reliever, too. His fastball could play up out of the bullpen — he hit 96-m.p.h. last season — which would play well off of a curveball that he’s clearly still refining, but could be a devastating pitch.

The spin rates on Thornton’s fastball and curveball rank within the 88th and 89th percentiles, respectively, across MLB, which is a great platform to work from. Of course, it’s one thing to be able to spin the hell out of the ball, and it’s another to be able to use all that spin to make your pitches as nasty as possible. The efficiency of Thornton’s curveball spin, for example, will dictate whether he gets good break on the pitch or not. And his ability to sequence pitches, tunnel them, and throw them on a similar axis, making them harder to read and react to out of his hand, will ultimately decide how effective he can be.

That’s the learning process Thornton’s working through at the major-league level right now. And the figuring-out process the Blue Jays are undergoing. Pitching behind an opener, particularly one as ineffective as Font was Sunday, is part of it. It’s debatable whether or not Thornton should be pitching behind one at all. Or whether he’s ultimately going to last as a starter or be a weapon out of the bullpen. But it isn’t in question that Thornton can be a piece of a more competitive Blue Jays outfit in the near future.

"I think he’s going to get better and better," Montoyo said. "The more he pitches, the more he knows the league, the more strikes he throws. Whenever his command gets really good, he’s going to be a good pitcher for a long time."

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