Healthy Thornburg hopes to reclaim spot in Brewers’ bullpen

Brewers pitcher Tyler Thornburg allowed just one earned run over his first 14 2/3 innings, but he was placed on the disabled list on June 7.

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MILWAUKEE — As the Brewers weigh relief options on the free-agent market, Tyler Thornburg is hoping to reclaim a spot in Milwaukee’s bullpen.

Thornburg is fully recovered from an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow that caused him to miss the final four months of last season. The right-hander is optimistic he will be ready to go when pitchers and catchers report to Maryvale Baseball Park on Feb. 20.   

"I feel great," Thornburg said. "Threw my second bullpen Friday. Right now it’s exactly like I would be doing normally leading into the season. We started throwing in mid-November."

After winning a spot in Milwaukee’s bullpen out of spring training, Thornburg allowed just one earned run over his first 14 2/3 innings. He retired 21 straight batters from April 6-18 en route to becoming the main right-handed set-up option.

Thornburg began feeling discomfort in his elbow during an early May series in Cincinnati but pitched through it.

He posted a 5.14 ERA over his next 12 appearances before getting tagged for five runs on three hits in Pittsburgh on June 6. It was clear something wasn’t right, as Thornburg walked four of the 10 batters he faced.

"When I was warming up in the bullpen in Pittsburgh it kind of gave out, and I tried to pitch," Thornburg said. "If you watched that game, I couldn’t even feel the ball. It was tough, just the situation we were in in the game. It kind of gave out while I was out there. Not much I could do. I couldn’t even pick up a baseball the next day."

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Thornburg was placed on the disabled list on June 7 with what was described as a wrist flexor strain.

"I think everyone was kind of hoping it was just a flexor strain and it was mainly inflammation and something that could be healed with just a little bit of time," Thornburg said. "Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. We took as much time off as possible. There were a couple times where I took three weeks to a month off, tried to come back and then just kind of shut down — wasn’t even at a point where I could even throw."

Once it became clear Thornburg wasn’t going to return in 2014, the 26-year-old underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection and was shut down for three months.

An MRI revealed a tear in his UCL, but a previous tear would still show up even when healed. It was unclear if the tear was the same one he suffered in 2004 while in high school or if it was a new tear in the exact same spot.

Regardless, the three months off healed the injury and allowed Thornburg to begin throwing again in mid-November. If rest hadn’t worked, Thornburg would have needed Tommy John surgery.

"It speeds up the healing, but with the PRP injections they say it normally takes four to six weeks," Thornburg said. "When I was at four to six weeks, I couldn’t even have tossed a baseball, to be honest.

"But it feels great right now and I’m very optimistic, and if it works out I definitely feel very blessed for not having to go the other route. We had time; that was the biggest thing. We gave it as much time as possible to heal. If we had started (throwing) earlier there’s no doubt in my mind I would have had to have surgery."

Whether Thornburg truly dodged a bullet will be determined once he begins pitching regularly in spring training.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke plans on having Thornburg ready once pitchers and catchers report, but said he will monitor him on a daily basis to make sure he is progressing.

The same can be said for Jim Henderson, who is trying to work his way back from season-ending shoulder surgery.

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"I think we wait and see," Roenicke said. "Health-wise, we’re confident they should be OK. A setback could change those plans. I’m not going to go into roles right now, but we like the four guys coming back from the bullpen last year. We know what they can do, so if Henderson and Thornburg bounce back and can stay healthy, we know how important they were to a very good bullpen."

While Thornburg seems on track to be able to compete for a spot in the bullpen, general manager Doug Melvin is hesitant to plan on being able to count on either reliever at this point.

A healthy Thornburg would go a long way to helping Milwaukee fill out its bullpen, as the right-hander has big-league experience as a starting pitcher and as a late-innings reliever.

"I think we’ll just wait until we get down there, and at that point see how they’re throwing," Melvin said of Thornburg and Henderson. "They’re both throwing now, they’re both throwing off the mound, so that’s encouraging. But, you know, I’m hoping they both can be able to compete for jobs, but I’m always guarded until you get in, into the heat of spring training and get back on the mound throwing at a certain velocity and all that."

Thornburg is currently throwing two bullpen sessions a week and will ramp up to three sessions a week in the near future. His plan is to be overly prepared for when spring training begins.

"The way we have it scheduled now, I would be ahead of everyone," Thornburg said. "It’s just in case of a setback, then I would be perfectly on schedule. But what we have planned right now, if I’m not having any setbacks then we can just kind of scale it back a little bit. But right now I’m on pace for the day pitchers and catchers report (Feb. 20), throwing a 60-pitch bullpen or live BP. We don’t do that until a week and half into camp."

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