UNC calls on freshman to avoid CWS elimination
North Carolina pitching coach Scott Forbes turned to his freshman closer Monday morning and said: “Thornton, you’re on the bump.”
With that, it was official. No. 1 overall seed UNC will start its trek through the loser’s bracket behind a freshman with five collegiate starts.
“You dream about pitching in games like these in the College World Series,” Thornton said. “So (I’m) a little nervous, but that comes with every game I pitch. I’m really excited.”
After losing to rival N.C. State 8-1 on Sunday, UNC will face No. 4 LSU in an elimination game today at TD Ameritrade Park (3 p.m., ESPN). Because they lost their first game, the Tar Heels (57-11) will need to win four straight in five days — including at least one against the Wolfpack — to make it to the championship series.
Thornton (11-1, 1.28) has been UNC’s most reliable arm in the postseason, starting with 6.2 no-hit innings of relief against N.C. State in the Tar Heels’ epic 18-inning ACC Tournament win.
Thornton then recorded two saves and threw 7.1 scoreless innings in relief in the regional round and posted both of UNC’s wins against South Carolina in the super regional series.
Before the NCAA Tournament began, Forbes told Thornton to be mentally prepared to start. Forbes reinforced that message Sunday night in a text to Thornton, saying there was a chance it would be Tuesday. The final decision was made after UCLA beat LSU late Sunday, and Forbes knew he wanted to start a righty.
The Charlotte native will be called on to stop a troubling trend from UNC’s staff — five straight starters haven’t lasted more than three innings.
That includes 2013 ACC pitcher of the year Kent Emanuel, who went just 2.2 innings against N.C. State. UNC’s other regular starters, sophomore righty Benton Moss (10 runs in 12.1 innings) and junior lefty Hobbs Johnson (six runs in 7.2 innings), also have been ineffective in the NCAA Tournament.
That opened the door for Thornton, whose ERA is seventh in the nation. Though he became the de-facto closer once conference play started — he is tied with Paul Shuey for most saves by a freshman in school history with eight — he also has been used in long relief recently.
Thornton threw 88 pitches in his most recent appearance, last Tuesday’s elimination-game win against South Carolina, and he threw 91 pitches in the ACC Tournament game against the Wolfpack on May 25.
“The bottom line is that the teams that win out here are the teams that pitch well,” Forbes said. “We haven’t been ahead in the count enough. That’s why we’re starting Trent, because — knock on wood — he hasn’t walked people and he makes you beat him.”
Thornton won all five of his starts between Feb. 27-March 27, though they came against midweek opponents St. John’s, Davidson, Gardner-Webb, Princeton and Winthrop. Now he must face SEC champion LSU, which is seeded fourth but is the top-ranked team in the media and coaches polls.
“I didn’t necessarily expect it, but I was hoping for it,” Thornton said.
The Tigers (57-10) gave up two unearned runs and were stunned 2-1 by UCLA on Sunday night.
Starting Thornton also will give UNC a chance to use the freshman later in the week in relief if the Tar Heels advance.
Forbes said that Johnson will move to the bullpen, where he spent the majority of the 2012 season. Chris McCue likely will take over the role of closer, while Trevor Kelley, who leads the team with 31 appearances, also will be available late.
LSU will start Cody Glenn (7-2, 2.41), marking the fifth straight time and the 10th time in 12 games that UNC, which has six left-handed bats, will be facing a southpaw starter.
By choosing to go with Glenn, the Tigers bypassed righthander Ryan Eades (8-1, 2.79), who was picked in the second round by the Minnesota Twins.
“That’s probably a pretty good call by them,” UNC leadoff hitter Chaz Frank said. “I don’t think any team wants to throw a righty up against us. We’re familiar with the lefties now, and I know it’s not going to be Carlos Rodon out there, so that’s always a good thing.”
UNC coach Mike Fox expects pitching to make the difference today.
“The national seeds and the conferences and what you do in the regular season doesn’t play a big factor out here,” Fox said. “It’s just a different animal out here. There are low-scoring games generally. Whoever gets the best outing on the mound and makes those plays comes out on top.”
NOTES — UNC is trying to avoid losing back-to-back games for the first time this season. ... The Tar Heels went 2-0 against the Tigers in the 2007 College World Series. ... During its run of six College World Series appearances in eight years, UNC always has won at least one game in Omaha and is 7-5 in elimination games.