At the start of SoxFest week, manager Robin Ventura tabbed Thornton as the favorite for the role. Days later in a radio interview, pitching coach Don Cooper sounded like somebody who wasn't ready to set Las Vegas-style odds on who might end up with the job.
Thornton himself said this weekend that he is ready to step up and earn the role he won out of spring training last season. And he has the confidence that if he does earn the job, it will turn out much different than last year.
“For me, any time I have failed in my career at anything … it doesn’t matter what it was, whether I was young, throwing strikes, I have always worked hard to get back to that point and be able to do it,” Thornton said.
There was no denying his struggles at the start of the 2011 season. He blew his first four save opportunities in succession, and by the final day of April, his ERA had swelled to 8.64. By May 6 he was not only carrying his four blown saves but watched his record fall to 0-3.
While the statistics confirmed his struggles, Thornton was also dealing with some unprecedented bad luck. He seemed to be the victim of much of the club’s early-season defensive woes, while the number of broken-bat hits against him also mounted.
Once the runners made it on base, whether they deserved to be there or not, Thornton looked uncomfortable and couldn’t avoid giving up the big hit.
“It kind of became a joke with my teammates,” Thornton said about all the broken-bat hits against him. “They were kind of blown away to see what happened. Whatever. I won’t ever make excuses. They got a hit, that’s all that matters. They got on base period, whether it was a hit, walk, error, whatever. They got on base and scored runs to tie the game, win the game, whatever. It was my fault. I will always stand there and face the music and bounce back from it to be better.”
The slow start and the loss of his job as closer defined Thornton’s season. Never mind that he rebounded to post a 2.89 ERA in May, a 0.77 mark in June and a 1.35 ERA in July. That success didn’t come as a closer. The left-hander never seemed to shake the perception that when the stakes were high, he couldn’t handle the pressure.
None of it will make him back down for another opportunity to end victories this season. Thornton said that recent history suggests he should be just fine in 2012.
“I remember after the ’07 season, it was a terrible year for me and I came back from that one [angry]; I was ticked off,” Thornton said. “I came back and had really good years after that. ... So yeah, I guess you can say I’m coming in a little ticked off again. I didn’t get the job done and I’m irritated by it and I want to prove that I am still as good as I was three years ago.”
For now, it appears that Thornton and Jesse Crain will duel this spring for the Opening Day closer role with youngster Addison Reed waiting in the wings. Reed is lined up as the closer of the future, but impressive outings in a set-up role could land him the job earlier than expected, which is just how Sergio Santos became the closer last season.
“Robin obviously has made comments about me supposedly having the lead for the closer job right now,” Thornton said. “Well, we haven’t started spring training yet so you don’t know what will happen. I’m not worried about roles. I’m just going to go out there and be ready to go wherever they need to help us win games.
“We have a great division. Kansas City’s youth, Detroit’s juggernaut lineup, Cleveland’s team last year and now with another year of experience. It’s going to be a fun division. It will be fun for us too and I’m looking forward to surprising teams.”