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Tyler Thornburg ready to return to game action

Tyler Thornburg got some good news on Tuesday, but he’s not out of the woods just yet.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s flown by, but spring training is getting pretty close to wrapping up. Today is March 22 (for those of you without calendars) which means we have only 12 more days until the Red Sox start their season. That, in turn, means pitchers only have a couple more outings before they are to be expected for Opening Day. So, if anyone isn’t throwing right now, they probably won’t be ready to take on the Pirates on April 3. We’re already seeing it with David Price, who still isn’t ready to throw and might not be ready until May. Tyler Thornburg is in the same boat, and while it’s not getting as many headlines it’s still an important story to track for the Red Sox.

Luckily, the Red Sox have gotten some good news on this front recently. Just on Tuesday we learned from Tim Britton of the Providence Journal that Thornburg will be returning to game action after an encouraging bullpen session. For those that don’t know, the reliever hasn’t appeared in a spring training game since March 1 after suffering from some dead arm symptoms and not being able to adjust to Boston’s shoulder strength building program.

His returning to games is undeniably good news, but it doesn’t mean the Red Sox are quite out of the woods just yet. Even Thornburg himself says he isn’t quite sure he’ll be ready for Opening Day, and that’s if everything goes perfectly from here on out. It’s not at all far fetched that he’ll suffer some sort of setback, even if it’s minor, over the next couple of weeks. If that happens, the Red Sox will be without one their two best relievers for at least a few series and likely longer.

The reason this is so important is because Thornburg gave the Red Sox something they were sorely missing: A reliable arm behind Craig Kimbrel. That’s not to say they’d be lost without him, because they won’t. In fact, if everything breaks right the Red Sox will have an elite bullpen in the American League. However, Thornburg is close to a sure thing when healthy — or at least as close to a sure thing as a non-elite reliever can be. He has the stuff, the pedigree and the track record (albeit just one year) that suggests 2016 was no fluke.

That can’t be said about the other relievers who would be the ones to step up and take his spot. According to reports, Joe Kelly and Heath Hembree would be chief among the candidates to step into the eighth inning. Kelly was phenomenal as a reliever last year, and I’ve found it difficult not to buy into the hype, but even through his good stretches there are rough stretches. His tendency to lose command isn’t totally gone, and that can be harmful in a high-leverage role. Hembree, meanwhile, can really only be trusted against righties. Having to play matchups in the eighth inning is fine when the starter goes at least seven frames, but that’s asking a lot on a consistent basis.

If Thornburg does have to miss a little more time, it will just continue a painful trend with the Red Sox and new relievers. Carson Smith, of course, had to miss virtually all of last season after being acquired. Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey also couldn’t stay healthy all year. Hell, Craig Kimbrel missed some time and was generally relatively disappointing in his first year, and he’s the success story of the bunch.

Right now, however, the news is good. Thornburg obviously isn’t as important as someone like Price, but he figures to be a big part of this team. Right now, it looks like he’s gearing up to be ready for the series against Pittsburgh, or at least shortly after that. Setbacks do happen, though, so this is an important situation that we’ll need to monitor moving forward.