Pitcher Trent Thornton steps into rotation

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Trent Thornton’s done a lot.

When he takes the mound Sunday against the College of Charleston, he’ll already have a College World Series and stints as a UNC starter and closer under his belt. But as a freshman coming into North Carolina’s top-ranked baseball program last season, no one knew exactly what to expect from him.

That didn’t stop him from having the best season of any of the pitchers on the team.

As the No. 12 ranked player in the state of North Carolina by Perfect Game , the freshman was clearly a high recruit and had always been talented.

But no one could have known how quickly that talent would translate to the collegiate level.

As the 2013 season started to come around Thornton wasn’t sure what his role was going to be.

“Coach (Scott) Forbes told me early in the season, ‘You know Thornton, we’re really confident in you, but we’re going to either start you, relieve you, close you …’ kind of three different — way different roles — that you have to prepare mentally in different ways,” he said.

But regardless of what his role was going to be, he wanted to find a way to get out on the mound and show his coaches and teammates what he could do.

“Coming in as a freshman, you know, the main thing you want to do is you want to get innings,” he said. “You want to pitch, you want to find any way to get in the game.

“And with my competitive nature, I thought I stood a good chance of really helping the team out in some way.”

With a starting rotation that already featured veteran arms in Kent Emanuel, Hobbs Johnson and Benton Moss; Thornton’s first shot to prove himself came out of the bullpen — an area where he had almost no experience.

Starting to close

Since he was mainly a starting pitcher in high school, Thornton had to figure out how to transition into a relief pitcher, as well as adjust to the level of college hitters.

But it didn’t prove to be much of a challenge for him, and he quickly secured his place as the team’s closer and go-to pitcher in tense situations.

“Coming in relief, coming in to close, was something I hadn’t done before,” he said.

“But you know, I’ve always been a person who thrives in pressure situations, and that puts you in a pressure situation every single time out there.”

Thornton wound up leading the team with eight saves and was a nightmare for opposing hitters late in games, holding them to a quiet .204 batting average . In addition to a plus fastball and slider, the thing that made Thornton so effective was his control. He rarely issued walks and finished the year with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 81 to 19, or 4.62 strikeouts per walk.

“Preparing to close, you know the game’s going to be on the line,” he said. “So you really have to focus every single pitch you throw because one pitch could cost you the game.

“Basically it’s just mental toughness and mental preparation — going into the game knowing that the game’s going to be on the line every time.”

That kind of psyche is what makes Thornton so calm.

It’s what helped him move back into his natural role as a starter.

And it’s what helped him excel in the biggest game of his life.

The adrenaline rush

Near the end of last year’s season, Thornton had established himself as the team’s top arm out of the bullpen.

But he was no longer needed in that role.

Just as Forbes told him at the start of the season, he could benefit the team in multiple ways.

He’d already helped the Tar Heels repeatedly slam the door on teams in the ninth inning —now it was time for him to get the call in the first.

While he was surprised to get the call initially, starting was always the goal.

“Ideally, every pitcher wants to start,” he said.

“That’s where you hear the big names and everything.”

And even bigger names are made from performances on college baseball’s biggest stage: Omaha and the College World Series. In an elimination game against Louisiana State in the World Series, coach Mike Fox called on Thornton.

“Probably the biggest game of my career so far,” Thornton said. “Just that feeling of playing in front of 30 to 40 thousand people in Omaha as a freshman — it’s definitely an eye opener. You think you have adrenaline when you’re closing, but when you’re playing in the College World Series, starting as a freshman … it’s definitely the real deal.”

But the big stage didn’t faze him. Thornton did what he had done all year — led his team to a win. He tossed seven innings and worked around nine hits to take UNC to a 4-2 victory and the next round of the tournament.

But, that’s where the Tar Heels’ tournament and Thornton’s season would end. UNC lost 4-1 to the eventual College World Series champions, UCLA.

A new season

It’s 2014 now, and UNC is preparing for a new, completely different season with many players missing.

The Tar Heels are going to have to try and make it back to Omaha without five of its regulars from last year’s lineup, and veteran starting pitchers, Emanuel and Johnson .

A lot will be different for UNC, but Thornton said nothing about him has changed — except for the fact that people now know who he is.

“Yeah it is a little bit different … but that hasn’t changed my mindset at all,” he said.

“You still have to go out there and prove yourself. So, I’m playing with a little chip on my shoulder this year.”

He might need that chip, Fox said, because it can be tough for sophomores — especially pitchers — to have continued success in their second year. Teams will have an idea of what Thornton’s throwing, the spots he likes to go to, the pitches he relies on and the way he likes to attack the zone.

To prevent hitters from reading him too easily, Thornton’s been working on adding a few more pitches to his repertoire.

“I’ve been tinkering around with my change up, and I’m going to throw curveball this year that I didn’t really throw last year,” he said.

“Obviously, you’ve got to pitch off your fastball, but it definitely helped tinkering around with some other pitches that as a starter you’re going to need … You can pitch off of two pitches but it helps to have some more in the arsenal.”

In addition to adding fresh pitches, Thornton is also going to have to become a more vocal leader. With so many seniors moving on from last year’s team and just four on the roster this year, returning players are going to have to step into this role, and Thornton said it’s one of his biggest goals.

“It would be really nice to have a year like I did last year,” he said. “But I want to be a better teammate this year. I want to get guys pumped up, get guys fired up like our senior leaders did last year. I think that’s why we were so good is because our team gelled so well, and we all backed each other up all the time.”

The leadership of both returning starters — Thornton and Moss — are integral components in getting UNC back to Omaha.

“You know, it leaves a bittersweet taste in your mouth. You get so close just to knocking on the door and nobody comes to answer,” Moss said.

“A lot of us have tasted that, and we want more.”

Moss and Thornton, who live together, push each other to be better each and every day.

The two are both working to be the team’s “Friday starter,” which is something Fox likes to see.

“They’ve been competing a little bit about who’s maybe gonna throw,” he said.

“I think it’s always good to have two guys that are competing for that, that kind of push each other. Trent … he’s very determined.”

Thornton will begin the season behind Moss in the rotation. But he is always trying to make himself and his team better, and with his extremely competitive nature, it can even be a bit intimidating.

“Trent’s very confident, you know in a good way,” Fox said at the team’s media day at the end of January. “Extremely locked in, almost kind of scary a little bit.”

“He’s throwing today, and he’s already in that mode of, you know, ‘Leave me alone, let me get prepared.’”

Trent Thornton’s done a lot in his short time at Chapel Hill.

He’s prepared to do even more.

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