Thornton starts game, eliminates the Tigers

In his first start since March, freshman Trent Thornton gave UNC what it needed for the 4-2 win.

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OMAHA, Neb. — For any problem, all postseason long, freshman closer Trent Thornton has been the solution. He’s been North Carolina’s easy fix, the stopgap, the door slammer.

On Tuesday, he was exactly what the Tar Heels needed yet again. He was their starter — and, more importantly, Lousiana State’s finisher.

In his first start since March 27, Thornton threw a career-high 114 pitches in a grueling, gutty seven-inning two-run effort that helped UNC stave off an early exit from the College World Series and send the Tigers (57-11) back to Louisiana.

Thornton earned his UNC freshman record 12th win of the season, as UNC (58-11) managed just enough offense against LSU to come away with a 4-2 victory and to become the winningest team in school history.

The Tar Heels will advance to play N.C. State on Thursday.

“We had the utmost confidence in Trent today,” coach Mike Fox said. “ I think all of his teammates did as well. He’s pitched like that for us all year long. So we’re sort of used to that.”

Cleanup hitter Brian Holberton, who swapped spots in the batting order with Skye Bolt, gave Thornton some early breathing room in the top of the first inning with a two-out, two-run home run that gave UNC its first lead of the College World Series.

The freshman right-hander took over from there, scattering nine hits as LSU left 13 men on base. He gave UNC its longest outing from a starting pitcher since June 3 simply by pitching three innings, and he handed the ball to former Ardrey Kell High School teammate Chris McCue in the eighth, who notched his second save of the season in Thornton’s stead.

“When you get a lead early, (you) need to focus and know that — just don’t give up any runs and you’ll win the game,” Thornton said nervously in the postgame press conference, as his teammates laughed teasingly at his response.

Whatever jitters Thornton brought to podium certainly weren’t with him on the mound. Matched up against a powerful LSU offense, he faced several jams throughout the course of the afternoon — beginning in the first inning.

After retiring the first two batters of the game in short order, Thornton walked the next two but escaped further trouble by getting five-hole hitter Raph Rhymes to pop up. He then wiggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the third inning, again getting Rhymes to pop up.

And in the seventh inning, up 4-1, Thornton picked up a momentum-killing ground-ball double play with runners on the corners and no outs. A run scored, but the twin killing also effectively killed the rally.

“I mean, he came right at us,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “He is a competitor, obviously. And he came right at us, and I thought at times we did OK against him … We just couldn’t capitalize.”

All the while, Thornton screamed into his glove as he walked off the field between innings. It was a mix of frustration and enthusiasm — he said he kept reminding himself to take the game one inning at a time.

“It’s not profanity,” Fox said, laughing in the postgame press conference. “I want to make that very clear since his mom and dad are back there in the back.”

Fox’s quip was a reminder of just how young the 19-year-old Thornton really is. Just barely removed from high school, he was one of the least experienced players on the field.

But, as he proved Tuesday, he’s also one of the best.

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