MILWAUKEE — When his starting rotation was struggling mightily in May, Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke would often be asked about options in Triple-A.
The question asked about top pitching prospect Tyler Thornburg wasn’t about whether he could come up and help, but instead trying to figure out what was going on with the talented young right-hander.
One glance at Thornburg’s Triple-A numbers — 0-9 with a 5.79 ERA in 15 starts — and a demotion to Double-A would seem more likely than a promotion to the big leagues. But with injuries mounting for Milwaukee’s pitching staff, the Brewers finally had to bank on his talent.
Seven relief appearances and two starts into his time with the Brewers, Thornburg has looked like a totally different pitcher than the one struggling in Nashville. He’s had command of all of his pitches, thrown strikes and has a 1.72 ERA in 31 1/3 innings.
“You can’t (explain it),” Roenicke said. “Hitters are obviously better (in the big leagues). It’s hard to explain. Certainly confidence has to be a huge deal with what goes on. For some reason he’s confident here and when he’s gone out he’s performed well. Then it just builds to the point where he knows if he goes in and makes his pitches that he’s going to get people out.”
After three promising September outings in 2012, Thornburg was hoping to get more of an opportunity to compete for a rotation spot coming into this season. The 24-year-old was instead optioned back to Triple-A Nashville after just two spring training outings.
Thornburg’s struggles struck right away with the Sounds, as he had a 5.04 ERA in five April starts. When the Brewers needed pitching the most in May, Thornburg was pitching his worst, going 0-4 with a 8.20 ERA in six starts.
How can a guy with such good stuff have those numbers in Triple-A? The Brewers felt it was a combination of bad luck and frustration. Those who watched Thornburg in Nashville claimed he was victimized by cheap hits and then ran into trouble by trying to be too fine.
Opponent’s batting average on balls in play against Thornburg in Triple-A was .380, well above average. His average of 10.49 strikeouts per nine innings with Nashville was a promising number, but Thornburg often found himself burned by trying to strike everybody out.
“I think it’s a case of not trying to do too much,” Thornburg said. “I started off a little bit unlucky and then because everything seemed to be a hit, I was trying to do a little bit too much — trying to make them not hit it. I think that’s probably why I had so many strikeouts down there, but again my numbers were a lot higher.
“Coming up here and talking to a few veterans like (Kyle) Lohse, helped me realize that it’s not about doing the best pitch every time. You make your pitch and everything that happens past that you can’t control.”
Like he’s done with many of Milwaukee’s young pitchers, Lohse has been willing to help Thornburg in any way he can. The veteran right-hander experienced struggles early in his career and now is trying to help young pitchers avoid falling into what hurt him.
Young pitchers often times feel as if they need to blow every hitter away, but that’s not the case and has been part of Lohse’s message to Thornburg.
“You want to impress everyone and do incredible every time out,” Thornburg said. “Unfortunately in this game that’s not going to be the case — ever. It’s pretty much just going with the flow.
“If you need to locate a fastball down and away, you are throwing to locate a fastball down and away. You aren’t worrying about trying to beat his bat, you aren’t worrying about blowing it by him or anything like that. You are just worried about trying to make your pitch and everything past that helps your chance.”
Thornburg was called up for the first time this season when Marco Estrada went on the disabled list on June 5. Chosen because of his previous big league experience, Thornburg went out and tossed four scoreless innings and picked up his first career win before being sent back down.
He went back to Nashville and posted a 3.86 ERA in four June starts, leading to the Brewers bringing him back up on June 28 when they needed extra coverage for a taxed bullpen. The stay was expected to be temporary, but Thornburg has been up ever since.
After four relief appearances — including three of four innings or more — Thornburg was given the chance to start when the Brewers had a doubleheader in Chicago on July 30. He responded by tossing six scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and striking out six.
Roenicke gave Thornburg another start Aug. 5 in San Francisco, and he didn’t allow an earned run in six innings.
“I was trying not to think about wanting to get in the rotation,” Thornburg said. ” I was pretty much just trying to concentrate on each outing and doing the best I can when I’m out there. I’m definitely pleased with this opportunity.”
As a guy who has bounced back and forth between the bullpen and starting rotation in his short big league career, Thornburg is happy to be in Milwaukee’s rotation, but surprised himself at how quickly it has happened.
“I was kind of hoping it would turn around in Nashville,” Thornburg said. “I was trying to get a few good starts in a row there and then hopefully get an opportunity up here. That wasn’t the case. It came a little bit different than anyone was expecting.
“Last year I was hoping I could have got a couple of starts back-to-back in September, but the case was we were getting kind of close and guys were throwing well in the rotation. I didn’t get that opportunity last year. I was hoping to get that opportunity down the road, but I didn’t think it would be this soon.”
For the time being, Roenicke is going to a six-man rotation to allow Thornburg to continue to work as a starting pitcher. How long that will last may depend on how well he performs in his coming starts.
“He has the stuff. It’s not a question of the stuff,” Roenicke said. “Now, can he maintain those types of velocities throughout the game? I don’t know yet. The last time he did and was still 93 (mph) in his last inning. We hadn’t seen that before.”