Aug 17, 2014, 4:26 PM EDT
Nationals reliever Matt Thornton is moving through his 11th season in the major leagues, he’s 37-years-old and has 656 MLB games to his name. By now there is plenty of tape and plenty of scouting reports on the 6-foot-6 lefty.
Only four of those games, however, have come in the National League, as prior to joining the Nats through waivers on Aug. 5, Thornton had always pitched in the AL. The hard-throwing veteran believes that has worked to his advantage thus far in his time with the Nats.
Through four appearances with his new team, Thornton has yet to allow a run. He has retired 11 of the 13 batters he’s faced and the two outliers were singles.
While the NL gets used to Thornton, he is bringing a specific strategy to the mound.
“That’s why, for me, throwing strikes is key right now,” he said. “If I get ahead of hitters, I minimize the pitches they see. I don’t know them, but at the same time they’ve never faced me, so I can use that to my advantage a little bit.”
The unfamiliarity, as Thornton alluded to, works both ways. He does not have a background with many of the hitters he goes up against. To compensate for that, he is putting in extra work.
“I don’t know a lot of the hitters that I’m facing, so I gotta go after them and adjust as we go,” he said. “It’s getting a feel for the hitters and seeing their reaction to my pitches and stuff. I watch video after I face them and go from there.”
No matter who he is facing, Thornton likes to set the tone with his fastball, what he calls his “bread and butter.” As a tall pitcher, he has a high release point coming from the left side and can still bring the heat. He turns 38 on Sept. 15, yet still averages 94.9 miles per hour on his fastball this season, according to FanGraphs. It is not rare to see him top 97 or 98.
It’s unusual you see a player of his age reach the high-90s, and Thornton works hard for it.
“My offseasons aren’t fun,” he said. “I don’t miss workouts, I work very, very hard. I do a lot of treatments in the offseason to get everything back into line and back to normal as close as you can. I continue to work throughout the season adjusting throwing programs and tinkering with mechanics and different things like that.”
Thornton has been with the Nationals for 12 days now, his fifth major league club. He is still getting used to his teammates, but is impressed so far with the talent up and down the roster.
“It’s been fun to be a part of, the [starters] have been great so far in going deep in games and making it easy for us. We’re not getting used and abused all day long. It’s been fun to watch and it’s been fun just to see this team,” he said.
“Being in the American League my whole career up until this point, I didn’t know a lot about the National League and I didn’t know a lot about the Nationals. But seeing our lineup and how aggressive they are and how good of hitters they are. Our rotation is great and our bullpen between [Drew] Storen, [Tyler] Clippard and [Rafael] Soriano, it’s been fun getting to know these guys and watch how they work.”
Thornton has pitched in the playoffs just once before, as a member of the 2008 Chicago White Sox. He has played on winning teams and ones that fell way short of the postseason.
Now on a first place team in the middle of a pennant race, Thornton is enjoying himself.
“Any time you are the team being chased, it’s fun being a part of that team. You’re focused on one thing and that’s your business. If you go out and win games then no one catches you. We’ve got a long ways to go, but at the same time we are in a good position and it should be fun over the next five weeks.”
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