Tyler Thornburg might be coming off the best month of his professional career (allowing a single unearned run on just two hits over 13 innings in August) in the middle of the best season of his life. But ask the 2011 Timber Rattlers pitcher about the last 18 months, and he'll tell you there have been "a lot of ups and downs." Thornburg moved into and quickly nailed down the closer role for the Milwaukee Brewers in August following a trade sending incumbent ninth inning specialist (and fellow former Timber Rattler) Jeremy Jeffress to Texas, and has come a long way since missing the last four months of the 2014 season due to injury.
"Starting with 2015, I was coming off that season-ending injury, working really hard to rehab and get back for the 2015 season and then to have it be such an up-and-down year for me," Thornburg said. "Making the Opening Day roster, and then two or three weeks into the year getting sent down (to AAA Colorado Springs), starting down there and having to battle basically the entire season to stay healthy. My arm wasn't great, but it was good enough to pitch."
Thornburg's breakout year in 2016 started with a healthy offseason where he was able to lift weights and take part in normal offseason workouts. As he began to feel stronger again, his confidence returned.
"I'm in a great place physically, mentally and emotionally right now, and I'm just trying to keep that going throughout the rest of the year," Thornburg said.
Entering this week Thornburg was one of just four pitchers in all of Major League Baseball with at least 60 games pitched and an earned run average under 1.75 this year. He said the mental side of the game is the biggest difference between his successful 2016 season and his up-and-down 2015 campaign.
"Obviously the physical side is a great deal different, but the mental side, when you know you're healthy, when you know you can throw balls by guys or put it where you want to for the most part, is a huge mental edge, just because last year you'd be second-guessing everything. 'Can I throw my fastball down and away? Can I throw it by a guy if I need to?' So I'd say just the mental part of the game is fairly increased from this time last year," Thornburg said.
Thornburg's success opened the door for him to move into a more prominent role in the Brewers bullpen. Even before he ascended into the closer job, Brewers manager Craig Counsell said he was intentionally putting Thornburg into the late innings of games when the middle of the opposing team's lineup was due to bat.
"That's by design a little bit. He's had a lot of that, which I think really should highlight his season even more," Counsell said in August. "When you come up with the meat of the order and you pick him in the seventh or eighth inning because of that, we're challenging him with that. That's an even more difficult task."
Thornburg said that experience facing opposing team's best hitters in the late innings prepared him for his current ninth inning role.
"Whenever I was pitching in the seventh or eighth inning it always seemed like it was 3-4-5 up," Thornburg said. "And for the most part we had so many one-run games, so it always seemed like I was facing three guys that could leave the ballpark at any given time every single time I was going in, and if I were to give up a home run to them it was a tie game. So that tremendously prepared me for a ninth inning role or whatever it may be, just because the situations coming in in those seventh or eighth innings were just as tough as any that you're going to be facing in the ninth."
Counsell described Brewers closers in the last 15 years as a "pretty diverse and inventive group," but identified temperament as an important qualification for the job.
"The requisite for high leverage innings in the bullpen, his (Thornburg's) personality works," Counsell said. "He's got the emotions and the 'turn the page' thing down pretty good, and that's an important quality in that job."
Thornburg saved a couple of games for the Brewers in May and June before transitioning into the role full time and Counsell singled out the first one, a 5-3 win over the Cubs in May, as having been especially important in helping him learn how to handle the stress of the ninth inning.
"I thought that was the big game for him, just in terms of the emotion you're going to feel. If your emotions are heightened it's going to be in that game. So now the rest of them he's got a good handle on how to experience it," Counsell said.
For the first time in his career, Thornburg will head into the offseason virtually assured a major league roster spot and prominent role for the year ahead. With that said, he's not planning on resting on his laurels.
"I think, regardless of where anyone is in their career, if you take things for granted it always comes back to bite you, honestly," Thornburg said. "But that's not a part of me. That's never who I'm going to be. I'm never going to be that guy that says, 'Oh, I have a spot for this many years, so I can take it for granted or take a little bit off.' I'm just way too competitive-natured to ever be in that kind of mental state."
While Thornburg adjusts to a new role on the field, he's also getting used to a new role as a veteran in the clubhouse. With the Brewers having traded Francisco Rodriguez, Will Smith and Jeffress in the last 12 months, Thornburg is the team's active career leader in pitching appearances. 2013 Timber Rattler and Brewers rookie Damien Magnifico has the locker next to Thornburg in the clubhouse, and said having someone he can talk to about life in the big leagues is "really big."
"I'm just here to learn for the most part, and to have Thorny next to me is great," Magnifico said. "He doesn't have a problem talking to me. I can talk to anyone here and they don't really have a problem helping me out. So it's nice to be able to come into a locker room where you're accepted."
Through his time in the minor leagues and spring training, Thornburg knows many of the players who have joined the Brewers this season. He's also young enough to remember what it was like to be new in a major league clubhouse, and he's taking it upon himself to ease that transition for some of his new teammates.
"I know, when I came up I always found it a little intimidating to go up to the Randy Wolfs, the Zack Greinkes, Yovani Gallardo even," Thornburg said. "I found it a lot easier to ask questions to the guys that maybe I knew a little bit more that were easier to talk to. So I try to be that guy, if they have any questions or if I see something that I feel like I can definitely help with or put into their game, I would definitely be happy to help out with that stuff."