CHAPEL HILL — Of all the arms on North Carolina’s vaunted pitching staff, the most valuable may belong to a freshman whose role was very much undecided when the season started.
The Tar Heels’ starters have carried them all season, but in the postseason, no one has done more to move the Tar Heels along than freshman closer Trent Thornton, whose lengthy relief outings have stretched the definition of that role.
With North Carolina pressed to the brink of elimination by Florida Atlantic and fourth starter Chris Munnelly only good for three innings on Monday after a two-hour rain delay just before game time, Thornton came in early and pitched late.
His four-inning, four-hit stint of scoreless relief kept the Tar Heels in a game that would turn improbably wild after he left, ending with a walk-off single in the bottom of the 13th and a 12-11 North Carolina win. It was yet another solid outing in a postseason where Thornton has continued to improve with every appearance.
A year after the Tar Heels’ season ended when record-setting closer Michael Morin struggled in the NCAA tournament, Thornton hasn’t allowed a run in the postseason heading into this weekend’s NCAA super regional against South Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“I’ve seen him do it before, and that’s a special kid we have here,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said Friday, after another perfect relief appearance from Thornton. “He’s made the dean’s list, just as a side note, besides the fact that he’s closing games in a regional for us as a freshman. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”
Coming out of Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte, Thornton started the season as a mid-week starter – a perfect 5-0 in five starts – before he was moved into the bullpen. The longer he was there, the better he fared. Five of his first seven appearances were starts. He picked up his first save on April 6 and added five more in the final six weeks of the regular season. On the season, he’s 9-1 with a 1.17 ERA and eight saves.
After contributing 6 2/3 innings of no-hit relief in the 18-inning win over N.C. State at the ACC tournament, Thornton picked up where he left off this weekend. He had a win and two saves in 7 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing seven hits while striking out 11. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last five appearances, spanning 16 1/3 innings.
“There’s definitely some more pressure now that we’re in the regionals,” Thornton said. “Just have to bear down and focus a little bit more. But it’s fun to have pressure.”
It must be, because it looks like he’s enjoying it. He even struck out Florida Atlantic’s Corey Keller twice after Keller hit a home run to deep left-center in the second inning off Munnelly and before he hit another even deeper in the ninth off Kent Emanuel.
By the time Thornton gave up back-to-back singles to open the eighth and left to a standing ovation, the Tar Heels had a four-run lead. Thornton had done everything in his power to make it stand up. It didn’t, of course, but that’s another story entirely.
What makes Thornton unique for the Tar Heels is his age. The top-10 single-season save leaders at North Carolina are all sophomores, juniors or seniors. The last (and only) freshman to save eight games at North Carolina was Paul Shuey in 1990.
“I’m not sure the last time we had a freshman closer,” Fox said. “I can’t remember back that far. But I think our team trusts him now, which is important.”
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