Thornton finishes season on a high note

Rookie applies lessons of '19 to shut down Rays after rocky start

September 29th, 2019

TORONTO -- Blue Jays starter pumped his fist and shouted in celebration after he struck out Austin Meadows to close out five innings of shutout, one-hit ball on Saturday afternoon at Rogers Centre. It was an ending that nobody would have predicted in the top of the first inning.

Thornton threw 36 pitches in the first frame of Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Rays, including a pair of walks. Up and down, inside and outside, Thornton struggled to find the edges of the zone. Then something clicked.

Over the next four innings, Thornton allowed just a single and a walk to finish his five innings with four walks and eight strikeouts. The outing also dragged his ERA back below five, finishing at 4.84 over 154 1/3 innings in a year that saw the 25-year-old unexpectedly become the only mainstay in a rotation thinned by injuries and trades.

Thornton briefly hit the injured list with elbow inflammation in late July, but that rest seems to have rejuvenated him for the stretch run.

“It was perfect for him,” manager Charlie Montoyo said after the win. “He needed that. After he came back from that rest, he was throwing harder. He was throwing 93 mph at first, then he went down to 91, 90. Then we gave him that rest and, since he came back, he’s been looking strong.”

It has been a season of ups and downs for Thornton, which is to be expected from a rookie with plenty of raw arm talent. Recently, he has been working on new changeup and curveball grips, which he plans to nail down over the offseason. Many of these changes have stemmed from conversations with veteran Clay Buchholz, who is scheduled to start Sunday’s finale and has embraced a mentorship role in 2019.

The big changes for Thornton haven’t all been physical, though. He has learned to take a step back, breathe and slow the game down when he needs to.

“Before, I would kind of categorize myself as a thrower,” Thornton said. “I thought I was a pitcher, but I learned so much this year through [pitching coach] Pete Walker, Clay Buchholz, Clayton Richard and a bunch of other guys. I feel like I’m becoming a more complete pitcher. Am I where I want to be? Not yet. But I’m making the right progressions to get there.”

Thornton’s workload this season sets him up for a full 2020, and the Blue Jays would love to see him continue to push deeper into games. Over 29 starts and a few times following an opener in September, Thornton has thrown a full six innings just eight times. The Blue Jays haven’t tried to push it, either, allowing him to throw 100 pitches seven times. Saturday’s total of 103 pitches was the first time he’d cleared 100 since June 21.

Toronto’s offensive output was highlighted by , who launched his 25th home run of the season in the first inning and walked twice. , who singled home the second run of the game, finished 2-for-4 and was the only Blue Jays batter to record multiple hits.

Hernández’s stretch run has left his manager particularly impressed, especially after Hernández spent 19 games at Triple-A Buffalo earlier in the season after struggling at the plate.

“His second half has been outstanding,” Montoyo said. “That’s a guy who I’m happy he’s doing well. His OPS in the second half is around .900. We want our guys to get to .800 and .900. If you look at the good teams, Houston and all of those teams, that’s what they have.”