Tar Heels sharpen skills in summer
In a matter of days, North Carolina baseball players Trent Thornton and Skye Bolt went from eliminating N.C. State in the College World Series to joining forces with two of the Wolfpack’s top players.
Thornton and Bolt played with the USA Collegiate National Team starting at the end of June and shared a team with N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon — who pitched twice against UNC in Omaha, Neb. — and shortstop leadoff hitter Trea Turner.
“Set aside the fact that they go to N.C. State, they’re two great guys,” Thornton joked, adding that he and Bolt drew the loudest applause from fans as the team played in stadiums around North Carolina.
Rivalry or not, Bolt, Thornton, Rodon and Turner combined with the rest of the nation’s top collegiate talent to go 20-3 on the summer, ending their run with a five-game sweep of a historically tough Team Cuba.
“Having USA across your chest is one of the coolest things, one of the best feelings I ever had,” said Thornton, who pitched a total of 5.2 scoreless innings for Team USA. “That group of guys was probably the most talented group of guys I’ve played with.”
Bolt and Thornton were just two of 18 current or incoming Tar Heels who participated in summer baseball leagues, including the Cape Cod, Coastal Plain, Northwoods and Cal Ripken leagues.
Five Tar Heels played in the Cape Cod League, one of the most prestigious summer leagues and the same league where No. 6 MLB draft pick and former UNC third baseman Colin Moran thrived a year ago.
“It is very similar to pro ball because you have guys from all over the country that are the elite pitchers and the best positions guys that are in the USA teams,” said UNC infielder Landon Lassiter, who played for the Chatham Anglers this summer. “Every night you’re going to face Friday starters.”
As a freshman this season, Lassiter solidified himself in the No. 2 hole in the batting order but saw little time in the field as UNC’s starting designated hitter.
With Chatham, Lassiter had the chance to work on his defensive skills, playing mainly third base with UNC teammate Michael Russell.
In other leagues, Tar Heels with limited playing time this past season had extra innings to refine their games.
“It was just great to get in there knowing I was going to start every five days and having the chance to just work on everything,” said sophomore right-hander Reilly Hovis in the Northwoods league.
The Tar Heels will have some holes going into next season with six players drafted and two-thirds of the weekend rotation gone, so that additional summer work could pay dividends as players fight for jobs.
For some players, it also helped to ease the sting of UNC’s season-ending loss to UCLA in Omaha.
Hovis, whose Mallards won the Northwoods League title, said he was glad he at least didn’t return to Chapel Hill empty-handed.
“You don’t want to lose two in a year, you know what I’m saying?” Hovis said. “It was nice to get one championship.”