A day after his 21st birthday, Nathan Thornhill is the one helping pitching coach Skip Johnson unload a circular orange tarp from a golf car onto the Disch-Falk Field mound after Thursday’s practice.
It’s Thornhill’s arms that are full of sticky, clay-colored spots — not the arms of any of Texas’ 10 freshmen, five of them pitchers.
“He just grabbed me,” the junior right-hander said. “It’s whatever. I don’t care.”
When the team lost staff ace Sam Stafford last season after having shoulder surgery, it was Thornhill that stepped in as the Longhorns’ Friday starting pitcher. By season’s end, he was a middle reliever, giving way to freshman Parker French, who took over as the team’s No. 1 starter.
“There were a lot of ups and downs,” Thornhill said. “Last year toward the end of the year, I got moved. The coaches felt like that was best for the team, and I performed wherever they needed me to. My freshman year I was a reliever, also. That’s the character of this team.”
It’s time for Thornhill to return to the Longhorns’ rotation.
His numbers won’t blow you away. He went 4-5 with a 3.87 ERA last season. Texas went 5-6 in his 11 starts.
But when you dig a little deeper, you find out Thornhill was much better than those numbers indicate. The Longhorns scored 12 runs in the six games they lost when Thornhill started, scoring two or less in all but one of them.
Four of the starting pitchers Texas faced when Thornhill started were among the first 22 selections in this year’s MLB Draft: Stanford’s Mark Appel (No. 8), Oklahoma State’s Andrew Heaney (No. 9), Texas A&M’s Michael Wacha (No. 19) and Duke’s Marcus Stroman (No. 22). In those four starts, Thornhill went 1-3 with a 2.38 ERA.
“It’s going to be a clean slate for everyone,” Thornhill said. “There’s a lot of things I need to get more consistent on.
I need to be able to throw any of my pitches at any time. I’ve got to get better. I’m not going to worry about what I did last year or what I’ve earned.”
Thornhill doesn’t have to be — and very well may not deserve to be — the team’s ace like he was for two months last season. French returned, now recovered from an elbow injury that caused him to miss the final two weeks of last season. The Dripping Springs product threw 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings at one point last season and could prove to be the Longhorns’ best pitcher.
“It is way too early to tell,” head coach Augie Garrido said. “The end result comes as a result of a lot of experiences that we haven’t had, a lot of different environments that we haven’t been in yet ... Our pitching staff is going to depend on the recruited players making major contributions. Who’s going to do that? I honestly don’t know.”
What we do know is that sophomore right-hander John Curtiss won’t be one of those guys. After a promising freshman campaign, Curtiss underwent Tommy John surgery last month, leaving Texas with a gaping hole in its rotation.
“It’s sad to see John go down, because he’s a great kid and he works his butt off,” Thornhill said. “Our trainer has us doing more band work to get our arms in better shape to withstand a whole season. John’s injury seems like kind of a freak thing. Parker’s injury was definitely a freak thing. But we’re just doing more to keep our arms in shape and prevent something like that from happening again.”
Curtiss went 2-3 with a 3.50 ERA last season, coming out of the bullpen for 24 of his 28 appearances, the second most on the team behind only Hoby Milner, who is currently in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system. Like Thornhill, Curtiss started last season in the Longhorns’ rotation before serving primarily as a reliever.
The Longhorns are no strangers to such offseason injuries. Stafford, along with outfielder Cohl Walla, who tore his ACL last February, were both lost for the season before it began. This time around, though, the Longhorns seem better equipped to overcome such a loss.
“John’s [injury] happened at a time where we had time to replace that slot,” Garrido said. “Sam’s happened unexpectedly at a crucial time where we just had to scratch him with no replacement
Dillon Peters, who went 4-1 with a 3.18 ERA last season, tied Thornhill with a team high of 11 starts as a freshman and has a chance to crack the three-man weekend rotation. As does junior Corey Knebel, who tied a school record with 19 saves as a freshman but expressed his desire to start as a sophomore.
With a deeper staff, Knebel could better serve as the team’s full-time closer again. Texas should score more than 4.8 runs per game this upcoming season, giving the quirky flamethrower more save opportunities than he had as a sophomore.
As for the Longhorns’ bullpen, that’s completely up for grabs.
“Some players play better in a competitive environment, and some players practice better,” Garrido said. “So until we start competing for real and for playing time, we won’t know that part of the equation.
Without that as part of the recipe, we can’t really bake the cake.”
That cake will be a lot sweeter if Thornhill is part of the recipe that is the Longhorns’ rotation. He’s earned it.
Printed on Friday, September 28, 2012 as: Thornhill deserves to be in rotation