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D-backs left-handed specialist Joe Thatcher comfortable, proving he’s more than a one-trick pony

PHOENIX — He was brought in to bolster a bullpen without a true left-handed specialist.

He was brought in with the hopes that his addition might aide a run at the second Wild Card spot and a subsequent berth in the postseason.

Yet for all of the aspirations that came with his late-season acquisition, none of them came to fruition for Arizona Diamondbacks veteran reliever Joe Thatcher.

Separated from the only franchise he had ever known for parts of seven big league seasons, the San Diego Padres, Thatcher struggled to adjust to life on the other side of the National League West.

“Coming to a new team, it’s always an adjustment,” said Thatcher, who was shipped out along with Matt Stites in exchange for Ian Kennedy at the 2013 trade deadline. “It’s a matter of getting comfortable, I mean I spent seven years in San Diego. I knew what to expect there and knew everybody.

“It’s exciting to get traded, especially in a postseason race. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out last year.”

It didn’t work out, not in the slightest.

As a pitcher with a specified calling card, the 32-year-old’s outings are often defined not by multiple innings but rather by small sample sizes: a batter here, an inning there, with a bases loaded, no-out situation thrown in between.

In those very measured moments last August, he failed more often than he succeeded — allowing six earned runs in 5.2 innings of work.

It wasn’t until the D-backs found themselves well out of contention that Thatcher came into his own, pitching his best baseball post-trade.

Over the final month of the campaign, the former undrafted free agent allowed just one earned run in eight appearances — a sign that his best days on the bump were not yet behind him.

With a spring to get familiar with his ‘new’ teammates and coaches, Thatcher regained the form that made him one of the more feared left-handed specialists west of the Mississippi.

In nine exhibition games, he gave up only one run on three hits in 7.1 innings of work.

“It was nice to have spring training this year,” said Thatcher. “I got a chance to know everybody a little bit more and feel like a part of the team from day one. I enjoy it here. We’ve got a great group of guys and I’m happy here.”

Among those that needed no introduction to him or his talent on the mound was the man who traded for him, D-backs general manager Kevin Towers.

Towers held the same position with the Padres back in 2007, when the team sent Scott Linebrink to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for three prospects: Steve Garrison, Will Inman and Thatcher.

While it was admittedly tough to leave Southern California, reuniting with Towers has eased Thatcher’s transition — especially in his first full campaign Sedona red.

“It’s nice to know a GM has enough faith in you to trade for you twice,” said Thatcher of Towers. “He gave me my first opportunity in the big leagues, so I’ll always be grateful for that. It was a little extra incentive to try and come over and make him look good.”

While Thatcher seemed to do just that this spring, Towers opted for more insurance in case the Indiana native experienced struggles similar to the ones he endured in the weeks following his arrival.

Arizona went out and signed Oliver Perez to a two-year deal in early March, and then proceeded to purchase the contract of Ryan Rowland-Smith just days before its home opener.

Rarely do teams carry three left-handed relievers on their roster to start a season, but those were the circumstances Thatcher was forced to live with despite a stellar opening act in 2014.

But live with them, he has.

In his first 9.1 innings this season, Thatcher has allowed just three runs, while striking out eight and walking two.

And while labeled as a guy who can only be relied on to face left-handed batters, he’s actually had more success against right-handed batters in April — .200 batting average compared to .318 batting average.

“I know that’s what I’m here for,” said Thatcher. “I know I’m here to get lefties out. That’s my job. But at the same time, I think I can get right-handers out, too. If called upon to get righties, I feel just as comfortable as I do against lefties.

“The reality is, though, that my job is to get lefties out. I’ve had a lot of success with it, so there’s a lot confidence in what I do. I know it’s my job and my role, but I don’t want to think of myself as just a lefty guy…It’s about execution, making pitches. To me, I’ve always been worried more about what I’m doing out there as opposed to who I’m facing. I just tell myself that if I do what I do and make my pitches, it doesn’t really matter whose in the box.”

It doesn’t seem to matter whose challenging him in the bullpen, either.

To date, Thatcher holds an ERA nearly a point-and-a-half lower than Perez’s. As for Rowland-Smith, he was designated for assignment on April 18.

So while he may not be fond of labels, one things for sure, Joe Thatcher is finally at ease being a D-back.