Commentary

Thornton on fence for Sox playoff pen

Veteran lefty reliever faces stiff competition for AL Division Series roster spot

Updated: September 27, 2013, 8:41 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BALTIMORE -- Matt Thornton was ahead of the Red Sox on this beard thing.

"I started to grow one probably mid-August last year and didn't shave 'til right before spring training," he said. "I had a good one going. Long hair, full beard. Mine didn't get as long as Andrew Miller's, but it was long."

The beard is back since his trade from the White Sox in mid-July, so as appearances go, Thornton blends right in. The fit hasn't been quite as smooth in the bullpen, however. The Sox had projected that Thornton, who turned 37 on Sept. 15, would pair with Craig Breslow as the second lefty in the Sox pen. But his inconsistency, and a strained oblique muscle that sidelined him for 18 games in August, had John Farrell looking to other options, namely rookie Drake Britton and Franklin Morales, who missed 93 games this season due to prolonged stints on the DL with back and pectoral muscle issues.

[+] EnlargeMatt Thornton
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesMatt Thornton has battled injury and inconsistency since joining the Red Sox.

Now, with Boston a week away from opening the American League Division Series, Thornton's position on the postseason roster is not assured. Farrell has not said how many pitchers he intends to carry in the first round, but in 2009 -- the last time the Sox were in the playoffs -- they carried 11 pitchers. In the previous five division series in which they played, however, they took just 10.

The rotation is set: Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Jake Peavy, in an order yet to be announced.

Closer Koji Uehara and setup men Junichi Tazawa and Breslow are locks. Rookie right-hander Brandon Workman would appear to be in line for another spot. Morales has been very impressive of late, posting a 1.93 ERA in nine September appearances while holding opposing hitters to a .194 average. Wednesday night, Morales picked off Michael Cuddyer, then blew a 95 mph fastball past Todd Helton in what was the Rockies star's last at-bat in Coors Field.

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Ryan Dempster has made two relief appearances since being taken out of the starting rotation and is no stranger to pitching in relief, having saved 87 games in a three-year stretch for the Cubs. Dempster would make 10, which would leave Thornton competing with two other lefties, rookie Britton and starter Felix Doubront (who is expected to pitch out of the pen for the first time Friday in Baltimore), for the 11th spot.

"I haven't thought about that, honestly," Thornton said. "I'm worried about the next [three] games, tonight first. Win as many games as possible. They'll make the decision that is best for the team. I hope I'm involved in that but if not, that's the game of baseball."

His last chance to make his case should come this weekend in Baltimore. He hasn't pitched since last Saturday, but that may not mean anything, as Farrell has tried to give his bullpen arms as much rest as possible while still trying to nail down the best overall record in the league.

"It's important for us to prioritize the health of our guys first," Farrell said. "That's where our depth continues to play out."

It helped immensely that the Sox starters have pitched deep into games in the past week. Lackey threw a complete-game two-hitter last Thursday in Fenway. Jon Lester followed the next night with eight innings, Buchholz went six on Saturday and Doubront went seven on Sunday. Lackey and Peavy both went six innings in Colorado.

Breslow has pitched just once since Sept. 18. Tazawa has thrown two-thirds of an inning since the same date. Uehara has pitched an inning since the 20th. Workman has thrown a third of an inning since the 17th. Britton has faced one batter since the 21st.

That all changes this weekend.

"It's balancing the end result of winning but making sure we keep our regular relievers sharp and keep them in situations they're used to," Farrell said.

Thornton, who made three scoreless appearances for the White Sox in their 2008 division series loss to the Rays, is candid about his performance since coming to Boston.

"I've been disappointed with the way I've thrown so far, without a doubt," he said. "I feel like too many baserunners, walks. Walks always hurt you, but this year it seems like walks have really, really killed me. I don't know how many walks I have, but I'd guess 75 percent have scored on me."

Of the 15 walks Thornton has issued this season, only five have come with the Sox, but three of them scored. It started with his first appearance for Boston, when he entered in the 11th inning of a game in Oakland and walked Chris Young, the first batter he faced. Young came around to score the winning run in a 3-2 Sox loss.

Last Saturday in Fenway Park, Thornton walked two, including the first batter he faced, Rajai Davis, after believing he had him struck out a couple of times. Davis came around to score.

"It's just a matter of getting ahead of hitters, getting back to pitching inside, jamming them, elevating, using my breaking ball at the right time," he said. "Like I said, I'm disappointed with the way I'm throwing lately, but physically I feel good now, the stuff is there. It's a matter of getting results."

Thornton's percentage of first strikes is actually the highest of his career, 66.5 percent, but the percentage of pitches swung at and missed is a career-low 7.8 percent. He has allowed 21 hits in 14 innings for Boston, and of 13 inherited runners, seven have scored. Opposing hitters have posted a .362/.406/.362 slash line against him, those numbers helped by an unusually high BABIP (batting average of balls in play) of .412. Thornton has kept the ball in the ballpark; he has yet to allow a home run for the Red Sox.

Farrell sounded inclined to give Thornton the benefit of the doubt because of the oblique strain.

"The thing that stands out to me is he unfortunately missed 2 ½ weeks, then had to start back up," Farrell said. "That's taken away from his availability to get consistent work, and regardless of the stage of your career, that's going to have an adverse effect. We take all that into account."

Thornton has experience on his side, but even he admits that's not enough.

"Experience comes into play," he said. "At the same time, if I'm not doing what I know I can do, that's weighed in. You better be throwing the ball well if you want to help this team."

Closing arguments begin Friday, before a final verdict is rendered.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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