Early Saturday afternoon, Nationals manager Matt Williams was asked to name a few relievers who could potentially pitch the ninth inning in Rafael Soriano’s absence. He mentioned three relievers by name: Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Matt Thornton.
While Storen and Clippard have long been familiar faces at Nationals Park, Thornton is still a relative unknown. After being claimed off waivers by the Nationals in August, he has spent barely a month in Washington’s bullpen. In that month, however, he has been one of its steadiest arms.
Entering Sunday’s series finale against the Philadelphia Phillies, Thornton had made 13 appearances in a Nationals uniform and allowed just seven hits and one walk. In 9 1/3 innings of work, he has a 0.00 earned-run average, all while pitching in the National League for the first time in his major league career.
“Just getting ahead, throwing strikes and going after hitters,” he said with a shrug. “Haven’t faced a lot of these guys, so it’s kind of all new. But at the same time, they haven’t faced me. So I’m using that to my advantage.”
Thornton turns 38 years old next week and is in the midst of his 18th professional season, but the effectiveness of his fastball hasn’t wavered with age. The left-hander calls it “my go-to pitch at all times” and throws it to every part of the strike zone. In one at-bat Friday, he threw the pitch four consecutive times at 96, 96, 97 and 97 miles per hour.
While his fastball has been the constant, Thornton said he has had to adapt his off-speed pitches over the years. This season, he has relied on his splitter, a pitch that he had never used regularly until now.
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“I struggled with my slider earlier in the year and when I did throw it, it seemed to stay in the zone,” Thornton said of the switch. “It was just one of those things where I needed a secondary pitch at the time. The split kind of took over for the slider. Now my slider’s come along, I feel really good with it, but at the same time, the split’s gotten good results for me so I’ve kind of stuck with that a little more.”
Thornton has spent the majority of his major league career with the Chicago White Sox, including an all-star campaign in 2010. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2013, then signed with the New York Yankees at the beginning of this season.
Thornton signed with the Yankees in part because he wanted the opportunity to pitch in the playoffs. Next month, in a new city with a different team, he’ll likely get his chance.
“It’s been a great month that I’ve been here,” Thornton said. “Just an awesome group of guys. A very talented group of guys. Lineup top to bottom, rotation front to back, bullpen front to back. Just a lot of talent. It’s about continuing to push hard throughout the rest of the regular season and getting a couple breaks when we get to the playoffs.”
• Tom Schad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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