Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Thornton bolsters bullpen
With almost 19 days to go before baseball's non-waiver trade deadline, Ben Cherington could've waited to acquire left-handed reliever Matt Thornton from the White Sox. The Red Sox general manager could've at least tried to talk Chicago down from its asking price of outfielder Brandon Jacobs, who was slotted at No. 6 - four spots ahead of Jackie Bradley Jr. - when Baseball America ranked Boston's prospects after the 2011 season.
But he decided the deal couldn't wait. Not after Andrew Miller's season-ending ligament injury left the bullpen lacking a lefty beyond Craig Breslow. Not with the American League East race so tight. And, maybe most pressingly, not with the Sox' upcoming schedule.
"(We) had a lot of conversations over the last few days just trying to see if there was a fit that made sense earlier in July. Turns out we've found one that we think makes sense," said the GM from Meriden. "There was some motivation to do it prior to the break. We get, after the break, back into AL East play. Trying to stabilize and fortify the pen was important. We found one that we liked."
They like Thornton because of a veteran track record that shows a 3.53 earned run average over 586 big-league appearances, and a .229 overall batting average for opposing left-handed batters that's been even better this year, at .173.
With Breslow less of a lefty specialist than a full-inning reliever - lefties entered Saturday hitting .271 against him, with righties at .261 - the Red Sox were generally in need of a pitcher with Thornton's skill set. But he specifically was appealing to Boston in part because of who he has experienced that success against.
After wrapping up the unofficial first half today in Oakland, the Sox come out of the All-Star break with series against the Yankees, Rays and Orioles. Players currently on those three East rivals are a combined 31-for-151 (.205) against Thornton over the course of a 10-year career, and individually he's had excellent results against some of the more impactful hitters on those clubs.
Yankee star Robinson Cano is 1-for-12 against him, with six strikeouts, while Travis Hafner and Ichiro Suzuki are a combined 10-for-43. Rays all-star Ben Zobrist is 1-for-6 against him, even as a switch hitter, while Tampa Bay has a total of three extra-base hits against him in 40 plate appearances. Baltimore leadoff men Nate McLouth and Brian Roberts are a combined 0-for-13 against him in his career, while Matt Wieters has whiffed in two of three tries, and the Orioles have collectively registered more than twice as many strikeouts (16) as hits (seven) in 48 plate appearances against Thornton.
"He's a proven left-handed relief pitcher who's been effective in the American League for a long time, one of the better left-handed relievers in the game really for a long time," Cherington said. "Had success in the American League, had success against a particular bunch of left-handed hitters that we face."
At 36, there is some concern over a steady dip in Thornton's velocity and a diminishing strikeout rate. But Cherington professed a belief that his arsenal is still plenty effective - "He used to be elite, elite stuff," said the GM, "and it may be just really good stuff now" - and that confidence was bolstered when the Sox scouted him on Thursday in Detroit.
Plowing through a perfect inning, he not only retired Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta on 12 pitches, but according to Cherington he reached 97 on the radar gun and was pitching at 95. A day after seeing that, the Sox pulled the trigger and brought him to Boston. A day after that, he was expected to join the team in Oakland.
After all, there was no time to waste.
"We're in a good position and we have an obligation as a front office to do what we can to help the guys in the clubhouse who are working hard every day trying to win games," Cherington said. "We felt like this made sense - and we felt it made sense to do it at this time and not wait until the deadline. We've got plenty of important games between now and July 31."
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It'd be hard for the Red Sox to have any complaints about the job Koji Uehara has done since assuming the closer's role in late June, considering he's posted a 0.87 ERA and held foes to a .111 average in his first 11 appearances. But if he should falter, or need a break, it's beginning to look as though Andrew Bailey might be capable of holding down that job again.
After using two strikeouts to get around a walk in the eighth inning of Friday's 4-2 Boston win, Bailey remained unscored upon in four July appearances that had totaled 5 1/3 innings. Over those frames he has yielded only two hits and a walk, and - maybe most encouraging for those who might've suspected a lingering injury had sapped some of his power - he's registered nine of his last 18 outs via strikeout.
The only run he's yielded since June 23 came on a solo home run from Edwin Encarnacion (who's third in the AL in homers), and if he continues throwing well it could be a major development for a bullpen still lacking depth, even with Thornton's arrival. Every inning an effective Bailey can spare Uehara and Junichi Tazawa is an inning fresher they'll be for the stretch run.
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Beginning with Friday night's win over the Athletics, the Red Sox play 13 straight games, and 16 of 19 tilts, against teams with winning records. Entering Saturday, Boston was 27-19 versus foes at .500 or better, third-best in the league.
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Stat of the week: The break is on the late side, and the season opened April 1 - but the fact remains: By moving to 58-37 with Friday's win, the Sox set a franchise record for wins before the All-Star Game.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.