OMAHA—Trent Thornton has saved eight games for North Carolina in 2013. On Tuesday, he may have just saved its season.
With their national title hopes on the brink and their regular starting rotation sputtering in the postseason, the Tar Heels turned to Thornton, usually their closer, to make the start against Louisiana State. Making his first appearance on the Omaha stage, the freshman righthander pitched like a seasoned veteran, delivering seven strong innings as the Tar Heels staved off elimination for the third time in the NCAA tournament, knocking the Tigers out of the College World Series with a 4-2 win.
"We had the utmost confidence in Trent today," North Carolina 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."
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: North Carolina seized control early with Brian Holberton's two-run homer off LSU starter Cody Glenn in the first inning. Despite a number of chances, the Tigers were never able to erase that deficit.
The Hero: Trent Thornton made his first start since March 27 and gave North Carolina what it desperately needed—length from a starter. The freshman limited the Tigers to two runs on nine hits over seven-plus innings, picking up his UNC freshman record 12th win of the year.
You Might Have Missed: UNC freshman outfielder Skye Bolt was moved down in the lineup to make room for Holberton at the cleanup spot, but the move paid off for Bolt as well. Bolt was hitless (0-for-6) in Omaha after his first two at-bats Tuesday, but he broke through with a double in the fifth and a critical two-out RBI single off LSU closer Chris Cotton in the seventh that padded UNC's lead to 4-1.
There were many reasons for that confidence. The freshman worked as a midweek starter early in the season and showed he could go deep into games, and he'd been North Carolina's best pitcher in the NCAA tournament, tossing 7 1/3 scoreless innings over three appearances in regionals and picking up both of North Carolina's wins in super regionals against South Carolina. Factor in that North Carolina's normal starters hadn't lasted longer than three innings in any of their last five games, and Thornton was clearly the man for the job against the potent Tigers.
Getting an early offensive boost didn't hurt, either. The Tar Heels shuffled their lineup Tuesday, moving junior catcher Brian Holberton into the cleanup spot behind star third baseman Colin Moran and dropping struggling freshman Skye Bolt to the six-hole.
"I kind of talked to (assistant) coach (Scott) Jackson a little bit—just felt we needed to make a change," Fox said. "Really just for the sake of just change, nothing really negative or positive, really. Just maybe just get Skye out of that four-hole and drop him down a little bit. It gave us some righties back-to-back with all the lefties we knew that were coming at us today."
The Tar Heels, with six lefthanded hitters in their regular lineup, are accustomed to seeing a parade of lefthanded pitchers, and the Tigers duly started lefty Cody Glenn on Monday. Leadoff man Chaz Frank struck out to begin the game, but his report to his teammates—watch for balls running in on you—proved vital. With two outs in the first, Moran lashed a single to bring up Holberton. As the count ran full, Holberton took a moment to remind himself of Frank's words.
"I swung over—I think it was the second strike," Holberton said. "And after that I just stepped out. I told myself he’s going to try to throw a two-seamer in here, so don’t get beat in. He threw it in and I put a pretty good swing on it."
Glenn tried coming in, but his 85 mph fastball caught too much of the plate and Holberton drove it into the right-field stands, his 12th homer of the year and just the second of the CWS through seven games. Just like that, the Tar Heels were ahead to stay.
LSU had plenty of chances to climb out of its hole, but the afternoon was a long exercise in frustration for the Tigers. Thornton came out attacking with 91-93 mph fastballs, and LSU didn't record its first hit until the third, when it went on to load the bases with two outs for senior left fielder Raph Rhymes. Thornton had just walked Mason Katz, but Rhymes went after his second pitch and popped up to second base. It was an unfortunate portent of things to come.
Two of the Tigers' brightest stars—Rhymes and freshman shortstop Alex Bregman—had miserable experiences on the Omaha stage, a big reason LSU scored a mere three runs combined in its two games. Bregman's error in the eighth inning on Sunday allowed UCLA to score the winning run in a 2-1 loss, and he went 0-for-8 in Omaha. The week was even worse for Rhymes. A .378 lifetime hitter at LSU, Rhymes went 0-for-9 in the CWS and stranded eight baserunners Tuesday, three times making the final out of an inning with at least one runner in scoring position.
"Raph’s had just an up and down season," said LSU coach Paul Mainieri, who choked up while speaking about the senior Rhymes. "We’ve grown accustomed to him being so consistent. His year last year was off the charts. It was just unbelievable, the level of consistency he had. And this year he just hasn’t been able to able to repeat his swing on a regular basis.
"And we’ve worked hard with him. We’ve tried our best. He’s the greatest kid in the world. I love them like my own children. I just feel bad for him. Knowing that kid, he’s going to . . . he’s going to blame himself, and he can’t do that."
Thornton pitched into the eighth inning, throwing a career-high 114 pitches before running out of gas. The Tar Heels then turned to righthander Chris McCue, who took over Thornton's closer duties. McCue allowed the Tigers to load the bases for the second time on the day in the eighth before getting Mark Laird to pop up to end the threat. McCue went on to close out just his second save of the season, getting around a one-out walk in the ninth that ended up as LSU's 13th and final stranded runner of the day.
The Tar Heels set a school record with their 58th win of the year, and they still haven't lost consecutive games all season. They'll still have to piece together three more wins out of their struggling starters to get to the CWS Finals, but with the grit and resilience they've shown throughout the postseason, nothing seems impossible.
"It goes to show the whole team doesn’t want to give up," Holberton said. "We’ve done it all year with our backs against the wall, just come out fighting. And I think we played better that way. And we’re a team that just doesn’t want to lose. We just want to keep going."