OMAHA, Neb. — Trent Thornton woke up Tuesday morning feeling butterflies in his stomach, he said. The North Carolina freshman felt his nerves in the hours before his start in an elimination game of the College World Series.
Before Tuesday, the most significant game Thornton started might have come during his high school days in Charlotte. Yet he spoke with confidence about starting against LSU with the Tar Heels season on the brink of extinction. Thornton backed up his words during UNCs 4-2 victory against the Tigers on Tuesday.
With the victory, UNCs season survives. The Tar Heels will play on Thursday against N.C. State, who fell to UCLA 2-1 on Tuesday night.
The Tar Heels (58-11) were content to savor this victory, though if only for a short while. They won their third consecutive elimination game in the NCAA tournament. And unlike the earlier victories against Florida Atlantic and South Carolina, UNC didnt have to come from behind this time.
The Tar Heels took an early 2-0 lead in the first inning when Brian Holberton, the junior catcher, hit a two-out, two-run home run off of LSU starter Cody Glenn. A sophomore left-hander, Glenn was the fifth consecutive left-hander to start against the Tar Heels, who have struggled at times against left-handed pitching.
Holbertons home run put UNC at ease.
After the home run, Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said, You could just kind of feel it in our dugout, like were going to win this game today. Were going to win this game this is exactly what we needed.
UNC also needed a good start from Thornton. Kent Emanuel, the ACC Pitcher of the Year, didnt make it out of the third inning of the Tar Heels 8-1 loss against N.C. State on Sunday. UNCs other two weekend starters, Hobbs Johnson and Benton Moss, experienced their shortest outings of the season recently in the Super Regional.
That was part of the reason why the Fox and his staff of assistants turned to Thornton, who earned first-team All-ACC honors. He said his nerves dissipated after Holbertons home run.
It definitely helped a lot, taking the nerves out there, Thornton said. Just knowing youve got a lead, you can kind of relax a little bit and focus more pitch by pitch and out by out.
UNC added another run in the third on Colin Morans RBI single to right, and that was all the support Thornton needed. Before leaving the game when he allowed a leadoff walk in the bottom of the eighth inning, he gave UNC its strongest start in weeks.
He allowed nine hits and two runs in seven innings, and struck out three. Thornton walked four batters, but some of those could be attributed to the cautious approach the Tar Heels took against the heart of the Tigers lineup.
We have a lot of confidence in Trent, Fox said. Hes a special, special kid and a special talent. And our team had a lot of confidence in him today.
LSU (57-11) broke Thorntons shutout with a run in the fifth inning, and then scored again in the seventh. But even that run represented an overall victory for Thornton, because it came home on a double-play ground ball after LSU had put runners on first and third with nobody out. Thornton escaped the inning one batter later.
Thornton has excelled in a variety of roles for the Tar Heels. He has been a middle reliever, a short reliever and a closer.
He was the pitcher of record in both of UNCs victories against South Carolina in the Super Regional. And now he has a victory in the College World Series after his first start on his sports grandest stage.
Chris McCue relieved Thornton with no outs in the eighth inning. Both Thornton and McCue played together at Ardrey Kell High in Charlotte, and Fox after the victory on Tuesday made mention of the coach there.
Need to give a shout-out there to Hal Bagwell from Ardrey Kell High School, Fox said. Coached them good.
So, too, did Fox, whose team won again facing elimination. In their first elimination game, the Tar Heels needed 13 innings to defeat FAU. Then came from a come-from-behind victory against South Carolina last week.
And now this.
It goes to show the whole team doesnt want to give up, Holberton said. Weve done it all year, with our backs against the wall just come out fighting. And I think we play better that way.
The Tigers eventually loaded the bases against McCue with two outs in the eighth, but the inning ended when LSUs Mark Laird, who came to bat with three hits, flew out to left field. McCue issued a walk in the ninth but retired the next two batters to end the game, and end the Tigers season.
The Tar Heels, who suffered an 8-1 defeat against N.C. State on Sunday, set a single-season school record with their 58th victory. They still face a long climb out of the losers bracket. To reach the championship series next week UNC, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, needs to win three consecutive games.
The Tar Heels will play on Thursday night and, if they win then, theyd still need to win again on Friday and Saturday. They ended Tuesday, though, having won their most important game yet one that allowed them to extend their season at least two more days.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter