Thornton, Konerko ready to enjoy reward
Lefty reliever, first baseman revel in All-Star trip
ANAHEIM -- Matt Thornton now has a little familiar company with whom he can share his first All-Star experience.
"It's great," said the White Sox reliever of first baseman Paul Konerko's addition to the American League team, which came Saturday night. "Paul's one of the most deserving guys to be there. He's having a career year, one of the best I've ever seen."
Konerko almost didn't receive the all-expenses-paid trip to Anaheim. In fact, the White Sox captain was passed over twice. His statistics certainly are All-Star worthy and then some, but it was hard to push past Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Minnesota's Justin Morneau -- guys who put up "Nintendo kind of years" in Thornton's eyes -- where American League first basemen were concerned.
"This one for me, you get to be 34 [years old] playing first, it's a tough position to make it," Konerko said. "There's a lot of guys who can bang it. ... People start calling you old and you get to come, you probably enjoy it a little more. And that's been the case."
The 2010 All-Star Game Final Vote sponsored by Sprint competition left Konerko third behind winner Nick Swisher and Kevin Youkilis, and also had Konerko making plans for a flight back home to Arizona. But Morneau suffered a concussion Wednesday night, taking a John McDonald knee to the head while trying to break up a double play in Toronto, and Konerko was selected as a replacement by Yankees manager Joe Girardi after Morneau was deemed medically unavailable.
When the All-Star news was announced during Saturday night's victory over the Royals, the crowd at U.S. Cellular Field gave Konerko a standing ovation and rang out chants of "Paulie, Paulie." That same Konerko appreciation certainly holds true throughout the White Sox clubhouse.
"He'll go down as one of the all-time White Sox greats when it's all said and done," said White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker of his friend and one of the team's main weapons on offense. "To have a guy in the middle of the order, a leader of our team, who does it the right way, the unselfish way, that makes life easier for me.
"Young guys come in and say, 'That's the way the captain does it. We are expected to do it the same way.' It has made my job easier over the years."
Although Konerko was out of the starting lineup during Sunday's 15-5 destruction of Kansas City, with manager Ozzie Guillen wanting to make sure Konerko had the proper rest going into All-Star action, the slugger ended the first half atop numerous White Sox offensive categories. His 20 homers hold a slim edge over Carlos Quentin's 19, and Konerko's 63 RBIs leave him three ahead of Quentin's fast-rising total of 60.
Throw in Konerko's .560 slugging percentage and .382 on-base percentage, along with his slick glove work at first and continued impeccable leadership, and the free-agent-to-be really is having a career-type season amidst a tremendous 14-year-career.
"I will say this," Konerko said. "I came into this year with the knowledge that guys my age, the way stuff has been around the game the last couple years, that if this was my final year in general, that if I had to come to grips with it -- that's cool. It's fine. I had a good run."
Picking Thornton and Konerko as All-Stars perfectly represents Chicago's first-half success, culminating in a 7-0 homestand and eight consecutive wins before the break.
"I didn't want it to end, didn't want to hit the break," Thornton said. "This is one of those [stretches] where we're playing so good you just want to keep on going. I hope these three days, this will be a good regroup time. Get everyone away from everyone a little bit. When you're playing this good, you really like all your teammates a lot. It's when you struggle that you start kind of hating certain guys, getting annoyed by everyone."
Kornerko and Thorntn have been pretty much the most consistent in their respective team discipline during an 87-game stretch in which the White Sox have been very bad or virtually unbeatable. Thornton's 98-mph fastball and pinpoint control have combined to earn him the reputation around the AL as a late-inning force, supported by his 2.70 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings, while allowing just one home run -- to Detroit's Brennan Boesch -- all season.
"This guy in Chicago, [Matt] Thornton, is throwing the best right now of any reliever," said Angels starter Ervin Santana, who watched Thornton in action during the White Sox four-game home sweep of Los Angeles this past week. "He's a lefty with great stuff."
"Absolutely, he deserves it," said Chicago closer Bobby Jenks of his bullpen mate. "It's an unbelievable experience -- not just to represent your team and your league, but more on a personal level."
Tuesday's contest marks Konerko's fourth All-Star appearance, with four hits in five at-bats to show for the 34-year-old's previous three Midsummer Classics. Thornton, 33, could serve as a useful left-handed matchup late in the game for Girardi, going against left-handed sluggers such as Ryan Howard, Joey Votto or Adrian Gonzalez, even though Thornton is so much more than a specialist.
"I've had a few pretty good years, pretty consistent years now," said Thornton, who said the weeks leading up to the All-Star Game were chaos to coordinate. "Pretty much across the board the last few years, I have been the same. I didn't get down on it, I didn't expect to ever go [to the All-Star Game]. That's just the way it was; setup men don't really go. I think once every three years, one setup man will make it. This year we have four, with the addition of Kuo on the Dodgers."
"He should be very excited about this whole opportunity," Jenks said. "I tried to give him some advice; not pitching advice, but about what to expect."
Jenks was selected for All-Star service in 2006 and '07 but did not pitch in either game. The White Sox closer is hoping Thornton gets into the Classic, representing one of the game's best bullpens for the game's hottest teams, with a 25-5 record in its past 30 games.
If Thornton does make it in, he won't exactly feel at ease. But he never does when he's on the mound.
"I'm always nervous," he said. "To this day. If I come in a game and we're up by four or five runs, I'm nervous. And I don't care who I'm facing or what I do. That's something that it's just the way I'm built. I get butterflies real easy."
Evan Drellich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Reporter Scott Merkin contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.