Matt Thornton dials up the heat in Nationals debut


Matt Thornton. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Matt Thornton jogged out of the Nationals’ bullpen for the first time in his career on Wednesday night. Two men were on and there was only one out. The Nationals had a comfortable lead but needed outs against the top of the Mets’ order. Manager Matt Williams called on his new, hard-throwing left-hander, claimed the day before from the Yankees.

Thornton’s first five pitches blazed over the plate: 95 mph, 96, 97, 95 and 97, the last getting left-handed Curtis Granderson to fly out to left field. Then, Thornton called catcher Jose Lobaton to the mound with hot-hitting Daniel Murphy coming to the plate.

“I’ve never faced him and said to Jose, ‘What do you got?’” Thornton said. “I’m going to trust the catchers when we get to Atlanta and as we go along here.”

Thornton gave up a broken bat single to right field to Murphy on a slider, which scored an unearned run. He then got David Wright to foul off a splitter and then weakly hit the next one for an inning-ending groundout. His slider reached 84 mph and his splitter, which he has used more lately, topped out at 91 mph. “Pretty good weapons, that hard,” Williams said.

“It was a relief to get the first outing out of the way, for sure,” Thornton added. “I wish I wouldn’t have let the one run score but you can’t do anything if the guy breaks his bat and finds a hole on you. Nice to get the first one out of the way and be a part of the team and slide into a role they can start using me on a regular basis.”

Williams plans to use Thornton as both a left-handed specialist, matching either him or Jerry Blevins against the batter, or using Thornton as a full-inning reliever late in games, capable of facing right-handers, too. Thornton has yet to meet the Nationals’ primary catcher, Wilson Ramos, who has been out on paternity leave, but he gave Lobaton simple directions about his pitching style.

“I pretty much said fastball, slider, split,” Thornton said. “It’s all about what I want to do against certain hitters. I’m not a traditional lefty who is going to throw fastballs and sliders away to a lefty. I’m gonna throw fastballs in and throw splits. I’m going to do different things with the lefties that I’ve learned over the years. And it’s also about getting to know the hitters.”

Even at 37 and 11 major league seasons under his belt, Thornton’s velocity is still impressively high. His average fastball velocity is up a tick to 94.8 mph this season from 94.2 mph last season. Following the lead of former Yankees teammate David Robertson, Thornton said he has learned to cut down on his long toss before game. And over the past six weeks, his fastball has reached 96 and 97 mph, as it did on Wednesday night. He has learned to save his best stuff for the game.

“The velocity has been really good for me,” he said. “Just learning yourself and what you gotta do in between games to get ready and take care of yourself. Physically, I feel great and have a good workout routine after games. I’ve learned to shorten my long toss up a little bit. I used to be a huge long toss guy and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to back off it a little bit. This year, less long toss has actually helped.”

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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