Thornton Keeps UNC’s Season Alive

Trent Thornton would have been a weekend starter for many college baseball teams this season. He entered Tuesday’s elimination game against LSU as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s leader in earned run average (1.28). Opposing hitters had struck out 78 times against Thornton, batting .194 in the process.

However, with the more experienced Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss, and Hobbs Johnson pitching well, the freshman Thornton was never part of North Carolina’s weekend rotation. After several strong outings as a mid-week starter, as well as a “relief” appearance against Clemson that featured 6 1/3 innings of work with no earned runs and seven strikeouts in the resumption of a postponed game, Thornton was moved to the bullpen. He recorded eight saves for the Tar Heels, two of which have come during the NCAA Tournament.

With the Tar Heels relegated to the loser’s bracket after an 8-1 loss to NC State to open the College World Series, Thornton got the chance to start against the Tigers. The rookie shut down LSU, leading the way to a 4-2 North Carolina victory to keep their season alive.

The decision to pitch Thornton, along with swapping Brian Holberton and Skye Bolt in the lineup, paid off handsomely for head coach Mike Fox in the win. Thornton pitched seven innings, allowing two earned runs and striking out three Tigers. While Thornton walked four batters and allowed nine hits, he consistently produced big pitches to escape jams.

In the third inning, Mark Laird reached on a single when the ball hit second base umpire Joe Burleson. LSU went on to load the bases, but Thornton coaxed a pop up to retire the side. In the fifth, LSU put runners on first and second with one out. Mason Katz singled home one of the runs, but Thornton prevented further damage with a strikeout and a pop up.

LSU had runners on first and third in the seventh inning with another chance to put runs on the board. Instead, Alex Bregman, the team’s leading hitter, grounded into a double play, scoring the run from first but killing the rally. Again, Thornton had worked his magic.

LSU loaded the bases in the eighth inning against reliever Chris McCue with two outs. However, Mark Laird flied out to left field, stranding the 10th, 11th, and 12th runners of the game for the Tigers.

The offensive alterations also helped the Tar Heels on their way to a victory. North Carolina assumed an early lead on a two-run home run from designated hitter Holberton. Another run scored in the third, as Colin Moran singled on an odd bounce off first base to bring home Landon Lassiter. This chased left-hander Cody Glenn from the game and gave UNC a 3-0 lead.

Holberton, batting fourth in the lineup following the swap with Bolt, was 2-for-4, with both of his RBI coming on the third-inning blast. Bolt was also 2-for-4, with an RBI single in the seventh inning to extend North Carolina’s lead to 4-1. Bolt turned on a Chris Cotton fastball to drop it in left field, allowing Moran to score from second base. Moran had reached second after a single and a Holberton sacrifice bunt.

The decision to start Thornton also gives North Carolina the luxury of sticking with their traditional starters for the remainder of the double-elimination portion of the College World Series. In order to advance to the championship series, the Tar Heels will have to win games on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. By using Thornton today, Moss and Johnson will be available in some order for the Thursday and Friday elimination games, with ACC Pitcher of the Year Emanuel likely pitching the Saturday finale.

Thornton will likely join UNC’s rotation permanently next season, as Emanuel was selected by the Houston Astros in the third round of this year’s MLB Draft. If his sophomore year is anything like his rookie campaign, especially his start in Omaha, the Tar Heels couldn’t be happier.


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