Matt Thornton: Is the White Sox Closer Not Built for the Last Three Outs?

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Matt Thornton: Is the White Sox Closer Not Built for the Last Three Outs?
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Okay, I admit it.

That headline was made to lure you in because it is a completely erroneous question. Get the memories of bombs from Jim Thome to Dan Johnson out of your head. Get the idiotic reasoning that he is a lefty and lefties shouldn't be closers out of your head as well.

Last season, in 60.2 innings, Matt Thornton saved a career-high eight games, held batters to a career-best .191 batting average, while sporting a 2.67 ERA. He also led American League relievers in strikeouts with 81.

Thornton didn't give up a run in 15.2 innings pitched in the ninth inning last season. In those final frames, he struck out 24, walked three and gave up four hits.

Thornton had 50 plate appearances against him in tie games, giving up three runs, eight hits and two walks, while striking out 23.

When the White Sox were ahead, he saw 150 plate appearances, giving up 10 runs and 27 hits, walking 11 and striking out 49.

Yes, Thornton is built for the final three outs. His entire career with the Chicago White Sox has been based off of pressure situations.

Arguably, Thornton was far more important to closing games than former closer Bobby Jenks. Why was Jenks starting an inning with no one on more important than Thornton coming in to get the final two outs in the eighth inning with the bases loaded?

The answer is it's not.

For some reason, there is so much more emphasis put on those final three outs, when all runs in all innings count for the same amount. All outs are important, not just 25, 26, 27. All hits, whether in the first inning or the final inning, can bite you as a pitcher.

The White Sox closer woes can be put on Thornton's shoulders, but a lot of it is just bad luck on his part. Unfortunately, this bad luck has come just as he's trying to notch his first save as a full-time closer.

In his first appearance of the season, Thornton entered with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Indians leading 4-1, thanks to a mess brought to you by Will Ohman (Oh, Man) and Phil Humber.

He gave up a bloop single to Shelly Duncan, which scored two, a walk to Lou Marson and a sac fly to Michael Brantley. The bloop single was unfortunate, but the walk was on Thornton.

None of those runs were charged to Thornton, although stats showing inherited runners scoring for relievers should be far more popular.

Against Kansas City, the White Sox put four runs on Joakim Soria with two outs and no one on in the top of the ninth inning to take a 7-6 lead. Enter Thornton.

Strikes out Alex Gordon (okaaay. goooood). Billy Butler hits a single (okay, he's a good hitter and that ball found a hole). One of the fastest guys in baseball pinch runner Jarrod Dyson walks to second base because Thornton didn't even look at him (not good). Kila Ka'aihue closes his eyes and swings as hard as he can, as he always does, and the ball happens to bloop perfectly for a double with Ka'aihue having no idea where the ball went off the bat (bad luck).

After an intentional walk, Thornton gets a fielder's choice and, with the winning run on third base, got a groundout (okay, good.) He then has a 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th inning with the game tied. All on groundouts, however, with no strikeouts.

Which brings us to the Tampa Bay Rays debacle.

Perfect scenario to get your first save as a full-time closer: A three-run lead against a lineup that can't hit. As long as your defense holds up, you're golden...

Thornton gives up a leadoff single and then gets a strikeout. Alexei Ramirez throws a one-hopper to Paul Konerko that Konerko should have gotten and Ramirez shouldn't have thrown so terribly, one unearned run scores. 

Johnny Damon hits an easy pop fly that Juan Pierre drops. Game should be over, but it's now men on first and third with one out and a two-run lead. Thornton gives up a single, but it's still men on first and third with one out and a one-run lead.

And here comes the biggest problem. Ninety-five mile-per-hour fastball, not 98 or any movement, that Dan Johnson (yes, Dan Johnson) hits for a three-run homer. Johnson has three hits in 38 plate appearances on the season and that was one of them. That is on Thornton.

And, finally, last night versus the Oakland Athletics.

A 2-1 lead against another team that can't hit. Double to the leadoff man, falls 2-0 to the next batter and gets bailed out that a player happened to be standing where a line drive went. Falls 2-0 to the next batter and he gives up a warning track shot that the wind killed, but didn't kill enough for Pierre to catch it. Pierre drops the ball and the tying run scores.

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It should have been caught, but Thornton was playing with fire the entire inning.

Manager Ozzie Guillen, knowing these aren't bloop hits, yanks Thornton.

It's tempting to point a finger at Pierre, but if you give up hits to the leadoff man and fall behind 2-0 when your fastball isn't moving and topping out at 95, rather than 98, you're asking for trouble. Thornton hit 97 mph on his first pitch to the leadoff man Andy LaRoche and LaRoche couldn't catch up to it and fouled it off.

Thornton never touched 97 again.

What was the pitch Johnson hit for a three-run homer for the Rays? A 94 mph fastball.

Thornton needs to find his fastball or his slider and changeup become useless. Unfortunately, thanks partially to his defense, he'll need to find a good mental state as well. More importantly, he needs to find his first save.

As for the White Sox, they may need to find a new closer because, after awhile, the excuses will run out.

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