Thornton's steady relief helps UNC to win
While North Carolina’s starting pitchers came up uncharacteristically small against South Carolina, freshman reliever Trent Thornton stood tall.
That’s why the No.1 Tar Heels are still alive and headed to Omaha to compete for the program’s first NCAA championship at the College World Series.
Thornton’s 4 2/3 innings of relief on Tuesday, when he allowed just one earned run, stabilized the game and allowed UNC to rally for a 5-4 win over the Gamecocks to win the third and deciding game of their super regional series at Boshamer Stadium.
“It was the best feeling I've ever had, just knowing that we're going to Omaha,” said Thornton, from Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell High School. “We've been through a lot this year. This is probably the most fun I've had playing with any team. It's emotional, going to Omaha.”
Standing only 6 feet tall but able to toss fastballs in the mid-90s nevertheless, Thornton’s work after struggling starter Benton Moss was removed in the third inning allowed him to get his second win of the series and improve his season record to 11-1. It’s the third time in three games against South Carolina that the UNC bullpen had to carry the burden for a starter who failed to last through the third inning.
Normally, that scenario would make it nearly impossible to survive a series, particularly against an accomplished team like South Carolina that had won the 2010 and 2011 NCAA championships before finishing second last year.
“I would have thought that was not good and it would have been tough to win a weekend series against a team like South Carolina,” UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes said.
But Thornton proved up to the task for the Tar Heels.
He also got the win in UNC’s 6-5 triumph in Saturday’s first game of the Super Regional Series. Thornton pitched three innings against the Gamecocks in that game, allowing one run on three hits.
“Thornton does a great job of using his body, using his mechanics, he doesn’t tax himself too much,” Forbes said. “That’s why his velocity stays up. You don’t normally get a freshman like that who stays tough. He really wants the ball in that big situation.”
Thornton took over in the third inning with UNC up 2-1 and retired the first five batters he faced.
A Thornton walk plus pair of UNC errors allowed the Gamecocks to take the lead without getting a hit in the fifth inning. The most damaging error was Chaz Frank’s dropped fly ball with two outs. Two runs scored on the misplay for a 3-2 South Carolina lead.
Thornton escaped further damage by striking out South Carolina clean-up hitter L.B. Dantzler to end the inning.
“That was big,” Forbes said. “That was huge. He struck out a really good batter there in Dantzler. If they get another hit right there it’s like aw man the dagger is really big. So he got us back in here. He threw a really good changeup and that’s a credit to him.”
The Gamecocks pieced together three hits in the sixth inning, with Tanner English’s two-out double driving in a run to make it 4-2.
UNC rallied for three runs in the bottom of the sixth to lead 5-4 and Thornton protected that lead in his final inning. Dantzler drew a two-out walk to bring the lead run to the plate in the seventh inning. But Thornton retired Grayson Griener on a fly ball to left field.
Chris McCue and Kent Emanuel finished off the Gamecocks from there, allowing no hits over the final two innings to send the Tar Heels to their sixth College World Series in eight years.
Thornton will head to Omaha as UNC’s most effective pitcher this postseason. In 15 NCAA Tournament innings, Thornton has allowed two earned runs on 13 hits.
Even before the South Carolina series, he pitched four scoreless innings, allowing four hits, in UNC’s epic 12-11 win over Florida Atlantic in the June 3 Chapel Hill Regional final.
“Trent, we think, has been one of our best guys all year,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said.
Now he’ll get a chance to show it on the sport’s grandest stage.