Thornburg looking strong in spring after wild 2012
Young pitcher moved between the Majors and the Minors five times last season
PHOENIX -- Milwaukee pitching prospect Tyler Thornburg threw three scoreless, hitless innings in the rain on Friday, a quality outing that was washed out because the Brewers and Rangers played only four innings before their Cactus League game was called off.
It was typical.
"At Double-A last year it was him and Evan Anundsen," said infielder Scooter Gennett, a teammate of both right-handers last season. "Every time they pitched, it seemed like there was something."
It was that kind of imperfect year for Thornburg, who endured the wet weather for a fantastic first half at Huntsville before a strange second half that saw him bounced between Milwaukee and Triple-A Nashville.
The travel odyssey began in June, when Thornburg left Huntsville, Ala. for a drive to Knoxville, Tenn. for the Southern League All-Star Game, only to detour to Chattanooga for a flight to Milwaukee and two days in the Major Leagues. From there, he flew back to Chattanooga to pick up his car for a drive to Triple-A Nashville, where Thornburg was limited to one start after banging his wrist on a coffee table. He returned to Milwaukee for two weeks in the Brewers' bullpen in late July, followed by a month of starts in Nashville in August, then back to Milwaukee for a final month in the Brewers bullpen, capped by an Oct. 2 start against the Padres.
Put another way, he went from Double-A to the big leagues to Triple-A to the big leagues, back to Triple-A and then back to the big leagues.
"It was just kind of a blur, to be honest with you," Thornburg said.
Not that Thornburg was complaining. Major League service time is worth the extra miles.
But he is hoping to put down some roots in 2013.
"Hopefully, if there is an up and down, it's just one: up," Thornburg said. "I'll try to do as much as I can to make that happen."
The 24-year-old, born in Texas and raised in Georgia, is No. 2 on MLB.com's list of the top 20 Brewers prospects and has a chance to begin the season as No. 1 in the Triple-A Nashville Sounds' pitching rotation. That would be ideal for the Brewers, who are looking at some other young starters for the big league rotation and would view Thornburg as a backup with a high ceiling.
He got his first taste of the Majors in June, when Shaun Marcum began having trouble with his right elbow, and Thornburg was needed for a spot start against the Blue Jays at Miller Park. He arrived in Milwaukee the night before but holed up in the Intercontinental Hotel, told to keep his arrival under wraps until the roster move was official. Word did leak out, and given Thornburg's numbers at Huntsville to that point (8-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 starts), he created some buzz at the ballpark.
Thornburg had not pitched in 10 days because of his involvement in a brawl before departing Huntsville, but for five innings against Toronto, he lived up to the buzz. Brett Lawrie hit a two-run home run in the third inning, but that was one of only two Blue Jays' hits, and Thornburg's own double sparked a four-run Brewers rally in the bottom of the inning.
He took a 4-2 lead into the sixth inning and lost it on back-to-back-to-back home runs by Colby Rasmus, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. All three connected with fastballs.
"I was getting tired, but at the same time, you're tired a lot when you're starting," he said with a shrug. "When you get tired, you start getting balls up with less [velocity], and that's what happens."
It was the start of Thornburg's "blur."
"Last year was my first year up, so I was kind of nervous through it all," he said. "Getting ready for games I was all over the place as far as my mind. ... It was something I was dreaming for my entire life. I knew it was going to be super-emotional, and all I tried to do was stay as even as possible -- try to treat it like a Double-A game."
The Brewers hope Thornburg is finished with Double-A games.
"[Last year] wasn't ideal. It didn't turn out ideal," manager Ron Roenicke said. "Sometimes you try things and you think they're going to work and they don't go as you planned.
"But we felt that he had enough games started there that first half, that the development phase of being a starter had been taken care of, and we wouldn't set him back by having that spot start and then putting him in the bullpen. That's how we looked at it with him."
Roenicke said he met with Thornburg late in the season to communicate that plan, and how highly the organization regarded him.
Friday was his best outing so far, even though it was washed out of the record books.
"Definitely a better fastball today," Roenicke said. "He threw some good curveballs. The change-up was OK. I thought that was good for him."