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.
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.
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“I’ve seen him do it before, and that’s a special kid we have here,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “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.”
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. On the season, he’s 9-1 with a 1.17 ERA and eight saves.
Thornton had a win and two saves in 7 1/3 scoreless innings in the regionals, 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.”
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.”