Brewers' Thornburg Builds Momentum In Double-A

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Tyler Thornburg was already off to a fine start with Double-A Huntsville after his first two outings. The righthander had allowed just one earned run in 11 innings in his first two career Double-A starts, striking out 13 and allowing just seven hits. Then his third start was even better.

In his outing on Monday, Thornburg carried a perfect game into the eighth, retiring the first 22 Tennessee hitters he faced before yielding a single and being pulled. The jump from Class A to Double-A isn't supposed to be this easy.

The funny thing is Thornburg actually did a better job of getting ahead in counts in his previous start than he did in his near perfecto. According to Huntsville pitching coach Chris Hook, Thornburg worked ahead of around 70 percent of the hitters in his April 11 start against Birmingham, whereas he was able to get ahead of less than 50 percent of Tennessee's hitters.

While falling behind hitters isn't advisable, it did give Thornburg a chance to show how much he trusts his stuff, not to mention the quality of it.

"He was working in fastball counts and throwing all pitches in fastball counts," Hook said. "His changeup was really good … It was a swing-and-miss pitch. It's a plus pitch for him. In 2-1 counts, he was throwing his changeup. And then he also had a 94-96 (mph) fastball that he threw anywhere he wanted to. The thing that was most impressive was that he had them baffled even though they were in hitters counts all night long."

The Brewers' third-round pick in 2010, Thornburg gets compared to Tim Lincecum both for his delivery and his slight frame at 6-feet, 190 pounds. The comparison extends to Thornburg's ability to generate plenty of heat despite a lack of physicality. He's been clocked as high as 98 mph in short stints, and Hook said he was able to hold his velocity deep into his outing on Monday, still registering fastballs as high as 94 mph in the eighth inning.

Thornburg's fading changeup is still his best secondary pitch, but his 1-to-7 curveball has made strides in the last year from when Hook had worked with him at low Class A Wisconsin. Thornburg stuck with the fastball and changeup primarily in the early going, but the curve was a valuable weapon as the game went on and he was able to turn Tennessee's lineup over a second time.

"He sprinkled (the curve) in the first time and a half around the order," Hook said. "This last time around, he struck out three guys in a row with his curveball. His curveball, to me, has improved quite a bit. The spin and shape of it has really come along."

Hook gives Thornburg high marks for his competitiveness and refusal to give in to hitters. The challenge that comes with that is for Thornburg to make sure he maintains a consistent rhythm and doesn't hurry himself, but that hasn't been an issue so far. The 23-year-old has handed out just three walks to go with eight hits and two earned runs in 18 1/3 innings for the year, resulting in a sparkling 0.99 ERA.

Thornburg's delivery has made scouts wonder in the past if he's destined for the bullpen, where his power arm would still play. Hook sees the Lincecum comparisons, but the pitching coach doesn't think it has to be an issue.

"People would consider (Thornburg's motion) unorthodox," Hook said. "There's a lot of movement to it, but this guy is an incredible athlete. And when you're an incredible athlete and you've got the ability to repeat your delivery like he can, it doesn't really matter what you do."

Thornburg had struck out four straight hitters when his potential perfect game was broken up by a single up the middle in the eighth. He was promptly taken out, having thrown 98 pitches. If the perfect game had been kept alive, Hook said Thornburg would've been given a chance to go back for the ninth if he'd been at 92 pitches or less after eight, but with that not the case, the eighth was going to be his last outing regardless of his chase for perfection.

As memorable as a perfect game would be, there are bigger goals out there.

"It's April," Hook said. "Obviously, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him. But we're trying to develop Tyler to be a major league starter. To have a perfect game, that would've been great, but the number one goal is to keep him healthy, keep him strong and continue to develop him."