UNC survives Canisius 6-3 in NCAA baseball opener

acarter@newsobserver.comMay 31, 2013 

— Mike Fox was saying how he’d seen Trent Thornton do this kind of thing before – throw the perfect pitch in the most pressure-filled situation – when Fox casually mentioned that Thornton, North Carolina’s freshman closer, also recently made the dean’s list.

The implication behind the mention was simple enough: Is there anything Thornton can’t do well?

“He’s got that it factor,” Fox said Friday night after the Tar Heels’ 6-3 victory against Canisius in the opening game of the NCAA tournament.

For seven innings UNC (53-8), which is for the first time the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, plodded through a sloppy performance that helped give Canisius hope. Benton Moss, UNC’s sophomore right-hander, pitched into the fifth inning but wasn’t sharp. Neither was the Heels’ base-running.

But the Tar Heels were at their best when they had to be, and Thornton was one of the main reasons why. UNC’s third pitcher, Thornton entered the game in the eighth inning, with the Heels holding onto a 4-3 lead.

The Tar Heels were nervous throughout, some players said afterward, and the pressure increased after Canisius loaded the bases against Thornton with one out. Later on, Thornton smiled at the memory.

“It’s fun to have pressure,” he said.

Thornton, who earned All-ACC first-team honors, struck out the next two batters looking. He needed just three pitches to strike out the second of those hitters, Canisius third baseman Connor Panas.

After retiring Panas, Thornton released some emotion during a brief but emphatic celebration. Meanwhile, the sold-out crowd at Boshamer Stadium, quiet most of the night, erupted in its loudest cheer – which was in part a sigh of relief.

“That was the turning point, probably from here on out,” UNC leftfielder Brian Holberton said of Thornton’s strikeout. “The whole game up to that point, everybody was just kind of not nervous, but had some nerves.

“And as soon as Trent got that out, you could feel the dugout completely change … the whole game changed on that one pitch.”

After extinguishing Canisius’ best hope to seize control, UNC increased its lead with two runs in the bottom half of the inning. Michael Russell, the Heels’ shortstop, provided the first of those when he came home on a sacrifice fly. Chaz Frank, UNC’s leadoff man, drove home the second run with a two-out single to center.

Thornton, perhaps buoyed by his escape in the eighth, then struck out the side to end the game. Thornton before Friday night had thrived in difficult situations before. He pitched well last week in UNC’s 18-inning victory against N.C. State in the ACC tournament. This, though, was something different.

“There is definitely some more pressure now that it’s in regionals,” he said.

This is the part of the season that UNC had long anticipated. When the Tar Heels began the season 39-2, they looked forward to now. While they spent most of the season ranked No. 1, they talked of greater, more important things ahead.

Canisius (42-16), the champions of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and the No. 4 seed in the region, didn’t make it easy for UNC. After falling behind 3-0 in the first and then 4-1 in the second, the Golden Griffins scored twice in the fifth to cut UNC’s lead to 4-3.

All three of Canisus’ runs came against Moss, who struggled for the second consecutive start.

“Benton didn’t look comfortable right out of the gate,” Fox said. “And I’m not quite sure why. He couldn’t locate really any pitch there for a while. And (he was) getting behind guys … just didn’t get into rhythm.”

For a while, Fox could have said the same about the rest of his team. After ending the second inning with a 4-1 lead, UNC’s next three at-bats ended with outs in the base paths. During that stretch, Canisius threw out two runners at home.

With the victory, UNC’s 14th consecutive in opening games of the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels advanced to play Towson on Saturday at 6 p.m. Months before defeating Florida Atlantic on Friday in the early game at Boshamer, Towson, the region’s No. 3 seed, was in danger of losing its baseball program due to budget cuts and Title IX compliance issues. The state of Maryland rescued it with emergency funding.

On a much smaller scale, Thornton came to UNC’s rescue on Friday.

Until he finished off the game with five consecutive strikeouts, the Heels were sloppy on the mound, too. UNC’s three pitchers combined to throw three wild pitches and hit three batters. Canisius had plenty of chances, but the Tar Heels’ pitchers stranded 14 Canisius base runners.

Afterward, the Heels were hopeful that what they endured on Friday night would prove to be helpful.

“We could have steamrolled past Canisius, but it was good that we didn’t and we could have a close game, so we could have that confidence,” Frank said. “We’re going to need that down the road – (knowledge) that we can play in a tight game, we can hand the ball to Trent, he can go right after them. And that was pretty important for us.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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