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April 8, 2011

On the Beat

Ninth-Inning Newbies

by John Perrotto

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Matt Thornton is the type of guy who likes to keep things simple.

Early in his professional baseball career in 1999, a year the Mariners made him their first-round draft pick, the left-hander was pitching for Wisconsin in the low-A Midwest League. The team was on a road trip when it was decided to stop for a lunch at a sandwich shop. When the staff was clearly overwhelmed by having so many customers descend upon them, Thornton got behind the counter and began helping make sandwiches.

Thornton, who begins this season as the White Sox closer after spending the first eight years of his major-league career as a set-up man or middle reliever, is taking the same roll-up-the-sleeves attitude as he did when his hungry teammates needed to be fed.

"I'm just going to do whatever it takes to get those last three outs," Thornton said.

Thornton is one of four pitchers getting a chance to be a full-time closer for the first time in his career. The others are Braves rookie right-hander Craig Kimbrel, Nationals lefty Sean Burnett, and hard-throwing Angels rookie righty Jordan Walden, who took over for Fernando Rodney earlier this week.

There are numerous instances of good set-up relievers being unable to handle the conversion to closer. But while closers may be overvalued in many respects for the limited amount of work they put in during the course of a season, anyone who has held the job will say that an immense amount of pressure comes during the short period of time one is on the mound.

The 34-year-old Thornton, though, is used to pitching in high-leverage situations. "I've been called upon to get some pretty big outs over the last few years," he said. "They might not always be the last outs of the game, but it has been when the game is on the line."

Thornton handled his previous role as Bobby Jenks' primary set-up man quite well. In fact, Thornton was fifth in the American League with 4.4 WXRL last season, behind only Joakim Soria (6.5), Rafael Soriano (5.9), Neftali Feliz (4.6), and Daniel Bard (4.6).

Jenks was 62nd in the league with a 0.4 mark. That helps explain why the White Sox decided to non-tender him last winter and have Thornton and fellow lefty Chris Sale compete for the closer's job in spring training. When Sale, the White Sox' first-round draft pick last June, struggled early in the Cactus League season, Thornton was given the job.

Thornton has just 17 saves in 409 career relief appearances. Eight of those saves came last season, though, and Thornton is anxious to build off that.

"I'm looking forward to proving I can do it and maintain the job of the rest of the time I'm in Chicago," said Thornton, who is signed through 2013 with a club option for 2014. "It's always fun to finish a game up. I've always enjoyed recording that last out and shaking hands with my teammates at the end of the game. It's a great feeling."

Buoyed by the fact that he performed so well last season, Thornton doesn't plan to make any changes to his approach in 2011.

"I'm going to be pitching the same way, just a little later in the game," he said. "I'm not going to change anything I do. I've got some experience in the ninth inning. Being the everyday guy now will kind of change hitters' approaches. They'll be a little more geared up to face me but it's something I recognize. I pay attention to that and I'll be ready."

Sale was impressive last season, as he pitched 23 1/3 relief innings, notched four saves, and was worth 1.0 WXLR just a few months after finishing his college career at Florida Gulf Coast. However, the White Sox decided Sale's development would be aided by pitching in non-closing situations to start the season.

"We got ahead in the count when we said this kid might be our closer," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "That was asking too much. Last year, we used him a couple of times and we got excited, but we made the right move to build this kid up little by little. If he was closing and not pitching well and we had to put him in middle relief, it would have been like sending the kid from Triple-A to Single-A. Little by little, we'll let him create more confidence for himself."

A similar last-minute decision shook up the closer situation in Atlanta. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said late in spring training that Kimbrel and left-hander Jonny Venters would serve as co-closers. However, Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell changed their minds during the Braves' 2-0 win against the Nationals in Washington on Opening Day. On the fly, they decided to use Venters in the eighth and Kimbrel in the ninth, even though the matchups dictated that a right-hander would have better served to pitch the eighth and a lefty would have been advantageous in the ninth.

Nationals manager Jim Riggleman also decided to lean to the left and go with Burnett as primary closer after originally saying the lefty would split duties with right-hander Drew Storen. Burnett had just four saves in 202 career relief appearances coming into the season, and the one-time Pirates top starting pitching prospect admitted he got a kick about locking down the Nationals' first save opportunity of the season last Saturday against the Braves.

"From all I've been through over the years as a soft-tossing lefty with injuries and being a starter, it's pretty cool to throw the ninth inning in a big league game and be that guy they called upon to do it," said Burnett, who did not pitch in a major-league game with the Pirates from 2005-07 while recovering from multiple arm operations. "It's a neat experience. I was like a little kid out there. It was something I'll always remember."

For the Angels, the closer decision came even later. Walden, who had one save last season as a September call-up, was given the job on Tuesday when manager Mike Scioscia decided to take the veteran Rodney out of the closer's role. Walden responded by finishing up the victory over the Rays that night, something Rodney couldn't do two days earlier against the Royals as he blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning.

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Rumors and Rumblings: With teams beginning to approach the 10-game mark of the season, here's something to keep in mind: since the move to three divisions in each league in 1995, just five of the 128 teams that have qualified for the postseason began the season 3-7 or worse—the 1995 Reds, 2001 Athletics, and 2007 Phillies at 2-8, and the 2000 Giants and 2006 Padres at 3-7. … Phillies manager Charlie Manuel wants shortstop Jimmy Rollins and center fielder Shane Victorino to try to bunt for base hits more often this season. Rollins had his first bunt single since 2009 on Wednesday night. … Twins manager Ron Gardenhire plans to give Joe Mauer regular rest this season by making backup Drew Butera the personal catcher for right-hander Carl Pavano, though Mauer will be the starter for today's home opener. … While Houston businessman Jim Crane is considered the favorite to buy the Astros, owner Drayton McLane is expected to keep control of the team through the end of the season. Crane is expected to try to lure Rays vice president Andrew Friedman, a Houstonian, to head the Astros' baseball operations if he gains ownership of the team. … Jack Wilson's days as a Mariner could be numbered, as he has not adjusted well to playing second base after spending his entire career at shortstop. He was lifted in favor of journeyman Luis Rodriguez in the middle of Wednesday's game against the Rangers after making errors on consecutive plays. … White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn wants to return to the lineup sometime this weekend despite having an appendectomy on Wednesday, which would be an amazingly quick recovery from the surgical procedure. … Right-hander Casey Coleman and left-hander James Russell are expected to fill the spots open in the Cubs' rotation with Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner going on the disabled list.

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Scouts' views:

Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig: "I like this guy because he can do some things. He's got some pop, and he can steal an occasional base. They don't need him in their lineup right now, but I think he could be a pretty good everyday corner outfielder in the right situation."

Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner: "He's been driving the ball like it's the old days, pulling balls again instead of just flipping singles into left-center. It seems like he's finally over his shoulder problems. He might not be the player he once was, but he looks better than he has in a long time."

Braves center fielder Nate McLouth: "He looked good in spring training, but he's reverted back to the player he was last year when he couldn't hit .200. It just mystifies me. He was a pretty good little player in Pittsburgh, and now he just looks lost."

Mariners right-hander Michael Pineda: "He pitched like a 10-year veteran [in his major-league debut Tuesday against the Rangers]. He was throwing 95 mph, freezing guys with his slider, and getting funky swings off his changeup. He was very impressive."

Astros shortstop Angel Sanchez: "This is how bad Sanchez is: the Astros really miss Clint Barmes and Jeff Keppinger, and they're utility guys. He's just awful, especially in the field. He can't get to anything."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

Related Content:  Matt Thornton,  The Who,  The Call-up

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