March 16, 2004

Notre Dame sophomore lefthander Tom Thornton (Middleboro, Mass.) has received his second BIG EAST pitcher-of-the-week award in the first month of the season, after an impressive outing versus hot-hitting Texas Tech at last week’s Round Rock College Classic.

Thornton retired 14 straight batters at one point while holding the Red Raiders to one hit (a bloop single) in eight shutout innings of the 6-1 win at Dell Diamond. The 6-6, 215-pound southpaw matched his career high with seven strikeouts and allowed just five balls to leave the infield while carving up a Texas Tech lineup that boasted gaudy offensive numbers – including a .350 team batting average, 13 runs per game, 30 home runs and 50 doubles.

In other news, Notre Dame remained 8th in the Collegiate Baseball magazine poll while moving up one spot in both the National Collegiate Baseball Writers poll (8th) and the USA Today Sports Weekly coaches poll (9th) and climbing two spots in the Baseball America poll (12th; see links to polls below).

Thornton – who also received the award after an opening-week win at then-No. 20 USC – becomes the fifth Notre Dame player ever to receive multiple BIG EAST pitcher-of-the-week honors in the same season, joining Aaron Heilman (3 in ’99, 4 in ’00, 2 in ’01), Scott Cavey (2 in ’00), Danny Tamayo (3 in ’01) and current junior righthander Chris Niesel (2 in ’03) in that distinction. Thornton now has the chance to join Heilman and Tamayo as the only Irish pitchers with three-plus BIG EAST weekly awards in the same season.

The win over Texas Tech allowed Thornton to bounce back from his loss earlier in the trip to homestanding Texas-San Antonio and he now has notched three primetime performances in three outings, including a no-decision in the 3-2 win at 15th-ranked Florida Atlantic (where he matched the outing of All-American lefthander Randy Beam).

The Red Raiders drew walks in each of the first three innings while their only hit versus Thornton came in the third, when Cody Fuller blooped a single into left field. Jason Delgado earned a two-out walk moments later but Thornton induced a rightside groundout from Michael Mask, followed by four straight 1-2-3 innings and a groundout to open the 8th as he continued to keep the hitters guessing and off-balance. Thornton then hit Fuller with a pitch, ending his streak of 14 consecutive batters retired (he also had a string of 13 straight batters without the ball leaving the infield).

Thornton logged 112 pitches (63%, or 71, of them for strikes) and was pulled prior to the 9th, when Texas Tech added two hits and their only run. His 24 outs broke down as follows: seven Ks (three “looking”), five leftside groundouts (three 5-3), five rightside groundouts (four 4-3), a popup to second base, a foulout to the catcher, one runner caught stealing, three flyouts to center field and one flyout to right.

Through four starts this season, Thornton owns a 2.84 ERA and 2-1 record, with 20 strikeouts, 8 walks, 3 hit batters and 19 hits allowed (.211 opp. batting avg.) in 25.1 innings pitched. He ranks eighth among BIG EAST pitchers (min. 1 IP/team game) in both ERA and opp. batting, with his ERA fifth-best among league pitchers with 20-plus innings. Thornton’s impressive start has helped offset the absence of two top pitchers (junior RHP John Axford and freshman RHP Jeff Manship, both out for the season due to injury) while also helping make up for the limited contributions of junior RHP Grant Johnson (just 3 IP, due to shoulder surgery rehab and illness).

His 2.14 career ERA ranks below the longstanding Notre Dame record (min. 60 IP) of 2.36, compiled by All-American Nick Palihnich from 1959-61. Thornton’s other career stats with the Irish include a 7-2 record in 19 appearances (12 starts), plus 49 Ks, 22 BB, 9 HB, 3 WP and 73 H in 80 IP.

Thornton’s earlier outing at USC included four strikeouts while allowing an unearned run on four hits and two walks in six innings of that the 3-1 win – ranking as one of the top opening-week pitching performances in the 10-year tenure of Irish head coach Paul Mainieri.

Thornton remains the ND program’s only lefthander to earn the BIG EAST weekly pitcher award, with 10 Irish players now combining for 25 BIG EAST pitcher-of-the-week honors in the last eight years – the most from any of the league’s schools during that stretch (Rutgers is next with 22, followed by West Virginia’s 16 and 10 from St. John’s).

Notre Dame’s previous recipients include 10-time honoree Heilman, from 1998-2001 (no other BIG EAST pitcher ever has totaled more than four). Two other ND pitchers – Cavey (’97-’00) and Danny Tamayo (’98, ’00-’01) – are tied for fourth on the BIG EAST list with three career BIG EAST pitcher-of-the-week awards while Niesel and recent starter/closer specialist J.P. Gagne (’00-’03) each own two BIG EAST weekly awards. The other four Notre Dame pitchers who have received weekly BIG EAST honors include Christian Parker (’96), Brad Lidge (’98), Alex Shilliday (’98) and Peter Ogilvie (’02).

The seven teams ranked ahead of Notre Dame in the Collegiate Baseball poll include LSU, Stanford, Texas, South Carolina, ASU, Miami and Rice (the same teams are ranked ahead of ND in the writers’ poll, but in a different order). The above seven teams and Auburn are rated ahead of the Irish in the coaches’ poll while Texas A&M, Long Beach State and Mississippi also are ranked ahead of ND in the Baseball America poll.

Here are links to the four national polls:

Sports Weekly/ESPN Top 25 Coaches’ Poll
Baseball America’s College Top 25
Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s Top 25
NCBWA Baseball Writers