OMAHA, Neb. — It didn’t take long Monday for Trent Thornton to identify the most important game he has ever pitched.
That came last week, in the third and final game of North Carolina’s Super Regional against South Carolina. The most important start Thornton has ever made, though?
That was a more difficult question. Thornton, a freshman right-hander, went back to his days at Ardrey Kell High in Charlotte.
“Our rival school, Providence, was one of the best teams in the state,” Thornton said. “And I pitched against (them) every year.”
The stakes will be a bit higher Tuesday. Thornton hasn’t started a game since March 27, against Winthrop. He will start for the Tar Heels against Louisiana State in an elimination game at the College World Series.
Thornton watched the Tigers’ 2-1 loss against UCLA on Sunday night. He knew then there was a chance he’d start against whichever team wound up in the loser’s bracket alongside North Carolina.
Of all things, Thornton wanted to pitch against the Tigers, the No. 4 national seed, with the Tar Heels’ season on the brink of extinction.
“I wanted to play LSU,” Thornton said. “… We’ll be ready to come at them.”
Thornton has experienced every pitching role possible for the Tar Heels. He has started, been a short reliever and a long reliever. He has closed games. He has come in amid tense moments, with runners on base, and been asked to escape trouble.
Now comes the most pressure-filled game of his life. With a victory against LSU, UNC’s season lives on. A loss, and it’s over. When the Tar Heels began the season 39-2, when they spent the first couple of months ranked No. 1 in the country, it seemed like an afterthought that they’d reach the College World Series.
What didn’t appear likely back then was the possibility that UNC would be relying on a freshman in its first do-or-die game in Omaha. Not that Thornton has pitched like a freshman.
“At this point, we don’t think about ‘freshman,’ we don’t think about any of that,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “Sometimes you come out here and roles change … it’s about who has the best stuff and who’s been pitching well for us and who can get us off to a good start.”
Thornton has been the team’s most effective pitcher during the postseason. In six appearances since the end of the regular season, he has allowed two earned runs in 212/3 innings. He was the winning pitcher in both victories against South Carolina in the Super Regional.
In the ACC tournament, he threw 62/3 hitless innings during UNC’s eventual 18-inning victory against N.C. State.
Scott Forbes, the Tar Heels’ pitching coach, sent Thornton a text message Sunday night. In it, Forbes told him there was a chance he’d start Tuesday. After LSU lost against UCLA, Forbes finalized his decision and informed Thornton Monday morning.
“I thought watching the two teams, there was no doubt we needed to throw a right-handed pitcher if we faced LSU,” Forbes said. “I thought if we faced UCLA, they have six or seven lefties, we would consider starting Hobbs (Johnson).”
Johnson and Benton Moss, the team’s weekend starters behind Kent Emanuel, have struggled of late, though. Emanuel, Johnson and Moss threw their shortest starts of the season last weekend against South Carolina, and Emanuel didn’t make it out of the third inning Sunday during the 8-1 loss against N.C. State.
The Tar Heels’ recent pitching woes have made it more critical to receive a strong start from Thornton, who excelled in his five starts this season before he became a full-time reliever.
Thornton, who earned first-team All-ACC honors, entered the College World Series with a 1.28 ERA in 28 appearances. Opponents are batting .194 against him.
Thornton spoke without a sense of fear about the task ahead. He said he would love to be a full-time starter and made it clear LSU is the team he wanted to pitch against.
“That’s the thing about Trent, and I think that’s why he’s been so good, is he’s not going to back down,” Forbes said. “He’s not your typical freshman. He’s going to attack them.”
Omaha is a long way from Charlotte, and starting against LSU with his team’s season hanging in the balance is a long way from pitching against Providence High. Yet this is the kind of moment Thornton hoped he would find himself in.
Surrounded by cameras, Thornton spoke quietly and confidently about what lies ahead.
“You dream about pitching in games like these, in the College World Series,” he said.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter