Freshman emerges from injury as reliable middle reliever

Righty reliever Lance Thonvold, back from an elbow injury, is a top option out of the bullpen.

Samuel Gordon

Lance Thonvold needed nine pitches to strike out Western Illinois left fielder Erik Maki on Sunday.

The redshirt freshman’s outing was smooth-sailing after that.

Pitching in relief of starter Jordan Jess, Thonvold didn’t allow a base hit and struck out six in 3.2 innings en route to his first career victory.

“He was the key to the game,” Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes said.

Head coach John Anderson has turned to Thonvold in the middle of games this year, and the 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound righty has responded, emerging as one of the team’s top middle-relievers.

His 12.1 innings are the most among Minnesota relievers this season. In four appearances, he’s posted a 1.46 ERA and struck out 10 hitters — not bad for a kid who’s getting his first real taste of college baseball this season.

Thonvold missed most of last season with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament — one of the major ligaments stabilizing the elbow. He was limited to four appearances and pitched just 4.2 innings.

Thonvold said he “felt something funky” while he was throwing in a game last March.

“There was a lot of throbbing in my elbow,” he said. “I had thrown four of five pitches with discomfort.”

Thonvold was diagnosed with the UCL sprain, and after five weeks of inactivity, he prepared to return to action.

But when he stepped back on the mound to throw his first bullpen session, he tweaked the elbow again.

“It just didn’t feel right,” he said. “We just decided to call it quits.”

Thonvold stayed away from baseball activities until mid-July. He passed the time by lifting weights, running and working at summer baseball camps.

Thonvold’s elbow was much better in fall practices, and he’s remained healthy so far this spring season.

Thonvold said he sensed early on that he’d be a middle reliever.

“I’m someone that can get out of a jam and throw a few innings,” he said. “Hopefully later in the season I can come in late in games as well.”

Thonvold touches 90 mph with his fastball, but Oakes said he feeds off the location of the pitch. He’s also improving his curveball and changeup.

Oakes said he’d like to see Thonvold trust his changeup more, especially against left-handed hitters.

Still, Oakes said he’s pleased with Thonvold’s improved performance and health this year.

“We’ve got a lot of one- or two-inning guys. You need some middle guys,” Oakes said. “Right now I anticipate Lance staying in that role.”