Thornhill settling into role as team's ace

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Sophomore pitcher Nathan Thornhill (36) throws a pitch in a recent game. Thornhill has take over for Taylor Jungmann as the Longhorns’ ace pitcher.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Four years ago yesterday, Taylor Jungmann and Nathan Thornhill squared off in an epic pitcher’s duel.

Jungmann, a senior at Georgetown High School, and Thornhill, a sophomore at Cedar Park, each threw three-hitters in a District 16-5A clash in 2008. Neither pitcher surrendered a run in the first six innings but Jungmann came through with the game’s only RBI, getting the decisive hit off of Thornhill in the top of the seventh inning as Georgetown triumphed, 1-0.

Both Jungmann and Thornhill would go on to become aces of the Longhorns pitching staff — Jungmann a year ago and Thornhill this season.

“He definitely gave me a lot of grief for that when he was here,” Thornhill said. “That game and the second time around he got game-winning hits.”

The 12th overall pick in last year’s MLB draft, Jungmann was given a $2.525 million signing bonus by the Milwaukee Brewers. Jungmann went 13-3 with a 1.60 ERA as a junior last year en route to winning the Dick Howser Award for being college baseball’s best player and helping Texas reach the College World Series. He left big shoes to fill for Thornhill, who is 3-2 with a 3.52 ERA this year. Thornhill will take the mound when Texas takes on Texas Tech Thursday evening in Lubbock.

“I have just as much confidence in Nathan as I did in Taylor,” said sophomore catcher Jacob Felts, who has extensive experience with both Thornhill and Jungmann. “He can throw all of his pitches in any counts that he wants to. He’s got command with all his pitches.”

Last year, Thornhill was primarily used as a middle reliever with Jungmann, Cole Green and Sam Stafford making up the Longhorns’ rotation, and freshman Corey Knebel establishing himself as the team’s closer. In 22 appearances and 38 innings, Thornhill went 3-0 with a 1.89 ERA while striking out 38 and walking only six. However, this season Thornhill was thrust into the role of ace pitcher and Friday starter just his second season at Texas.

“He has [become a leader], not only vocally but from a performance standpoint, too,” Felts said. “Whenever we were struggling there for a little bit, he was out there on the mound battling his butt off and a lot guys picked up on that and stepped up behind him.”

Thornhill has made seven starts this season, with the first and the last arguably being the best. In the Longhorns’ first contest of the year, the sophomore hurler tossed five scoreless innings against Duke and highly-regarded pro pitching prospect Marcus Stroman in a 4-0, seven-inning win. Thornhill was sharp again last Friday in a 13-3 victory over Cal at the Dell Diamond in Round Rock, allowing five hits and two earned runs over seven innings while striking out five and walking none. The outing marked the second time this year that Thornhill had given up less than three earned runs in at least seven innings of work.

“I’m definitely not satisfied. You’ve got to stay hungry or else you’re never going to get better,” said Thornhill. “I feel like I’ve done a good job of throwing strikes but I feel that one thing I need to work on is constantly attacking the glove and, instead of zoning out occasionally and just throwing to the zone, throwing to the mitt.”

Thornhill isn’t having the sophomore season that Jungmann had during his second year as a Longhorn when he went 8-3 with a 2.03 ERA but, to his credit he is a regular starter for the first time since he was in high school. As a freshman, Thornhill had to be prepared to pitch almost every game. This year, he’s slated to take the mound only once a week.

“In middle relief, you go maybe three innings at the most,” Thornhill said. “Pitching more innings take more focus. As a starter, I’ll be sitting in the locker room for two hours just listening to music. I take a shower before I start. It gives me something to do. You have a lot of time in there by yourself so you just look for things to do.”

Jungmann is set to begin his professional baseball career and has a chance to make Milwaukee’s major-league roster before the end of the season. But he’s still contributing to Texas’ baseball program. Thornhill texted the 6-foot-6 pitcher for advice before his last start and Jungmann told him not to long toss and keep warm-up throws inside 120 feet. Thornhill put the words of wisdom into practice and picked up a win for the first time in a month.

“It seemed to work,” Thornhill said. “He was a great pitcher here, so he’s definitely a guy you want to model yourself after. I’m definitely not as tall as he is, but you still want to pitch like he does.”

Printed on Thursday, April 5, 2012 as: Thornhill settles into role as ace