Brewers' Thornburg thriving in late-inning bullpen role

Though he initially hoped to compete for a spot in the Milwaukee Brewers' starting rotation, Tyler Thornburg has embraced his role as a reliever, allowing just one earned run in 12 innings.

All 11 of Tyler Thornburg's relief outings have come from the seventh inning or later, including pitching the eighth inning four times. At one point, he retired 21 consecutive hitters.

Howard Smith / USA TODAY Sports

MILWAUKEE -- There was no time for Tyler Thornburg to feel sorry for himself.

Though he wanted to compete for a spot in the rotation, Thornburg understood why the Milwaukee Brewers were signing Matt Garza to join the starting staff.

Now the young right-hander had to find a way to make the big-league roster.

"This spring, I really concentrated on doing the things I needed to do to get ready to pitch," Thornburg said. "Other than that, I didn't really worry about where I was going to be pitching at. Because I prepared myself for that, there wasn't really a letdown (when he wasn't in the rotation) or anything like that."

Instead of having Thornburg start in Triple-A, the Brewers decided the 25-year-old was more valuable to them in their bullpen. Now, 20 games into the season, the move has proved to be brilliant. Thornburg has allowed just one earned run in 12 innings and is one of the major reasons Milwaukee's bullpen has been dominant in the early going.

Starting the season in a long- to middle-relief role, Thornburg quickly pitched himself into a late-innings option, helping ease the blow of losing Brandon Kintzler to the disabled list.

"I think Thornburg stepping in, what he's doing is huge," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "Kintzler goes down and we've got a guy that steps up. It's big, especially those guys you want in there in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings."

The disappointment of not making the Opening Day roster in 2013 may have gotten the best of Thornburg last season. He was 0-9 with a 5.79 ERA at Triple-A Nashville and was only brought up in June because of how desperate the Brewers were for pitching.

Thornburg earned his keep in the big leagues by posting a 2.03 ERA in 18 appearances with the Brewers, including having a 1.47 ERA in seven starts at the end of the season.

"It was huge as far as knowing I can get through a lineup three or four times, whatever it may be," Thornburg said. "I think it taught me a lot about how to get hitters out on a consistent basis.  I think just being able to do that last year really, really helped my confidence. If you can get through some really good hitters three or four times you should be able to last a whole year in the bullpen."

Between Thornburg and left-hander Will Smith, the Brewers have turned two starting pitchers into effective late-inning relievers. The two have combined to allow just one earned run over 21 2/3 innings for a 0.42 ERA.

With Jim Henderson fighting to find consistency and Kintzler injured, Thornburg and Smith have been thrown into the fire.

"They have been tremendous," Brewers closer Francisco Rodriguez said. "They are throwing the ball extremely well. I think it has surprised me more that they want the ball every day. They attack the zone and when they get the chance, they put them away. Usually you don't see that from young guys.

"They don't give much credit to the hitters. They just go right at them and put them away, which is good."

Thornburg believes pitching late with games on the line has something to do with how successful he's been. All 11 of his outings have come from the seventh inning or later, including pitching the eighth inning four times.

He retired 21 consecutive hitters at one point and has been able to use all three of his pitches in any count or situation.

"Being a really competitive guy, it's a lot easier to get locked in and concentrate more in tight games," Thornburg said. "Games where we are down by four or five or up by a ton, it's kind of hard to get the adrenaline flowing. Any time you can come into a tight game when it really matters, I feel like I'm able to do a little bit better.

"The past couple of years I haven't been able to do that. I think in order to really do my best, I should be in those situations."

As for what the future holds beyond this season for Thornburg, opinions are split as to if he'd be better off as a starting pitcher or as a reliever. His fastball sits in the 90-92 mph range as a starter, but it can hit the upper 90's consistently out of the bullpen.

With three good pitches, Thornburg could have a chance to be a closer down the road.

"I feel like in order to get better as a pitcher I want to work against major league hitters," Thornburg said. "Whether it is them viewing me as a reliever in the long run or a starter, whatever it may be, I want to continue to get better. I feel like in order to be able to do that I need to be up here."

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