Thornton improved his record to 7-0, thanks to his effective four-and-a-third innings behind Sunday starter Hobbs Johnson, as North Carolina completed the weekend sweep of Maryland and continued its best start in program history (29-2, 12-2 ACC).
In bottom of the eighth inning, Thornton was presented with a unique opportunity by the coaching staff, as the result of an unlikely sequence of substitutions. Shortstop Michael Russell struck out looking in the fifth inning and slammed his bat returning to the dugout. Head coach Mike Fox reacted to that display by replacing Russell with freshman Matt Campbell. In the sixth, with the bases loaded and two outs, Matt Rubino was sent in to pinch hit for Campbell. This then necessitated that Landon Lassiter move from designated hitter to shortstop and Thornton assume Rubino’s spot in the lineup.
"So I go in the dugout and the (coaches) said that I was in the hole," Thornton said. " I replied, ‘What are you talking about? I'm not hitting.’
“‘Yes, you are' (they replied).
“(The players on the bench said) ‘Well , wait to see what (Cody) Stubbs does (ahead of you), you are either going to bunt or you are going to sacrifice bunt.
“Coach (Scott) Forbes was like, 'Just swing.'"
So Thornton grabbed teammate Mike Zolk’s bat and headed to the plate. Three pitches later -- all curve balls -- Thornton found himself sitting on a 1-2 count. "The curveball was the only one I could never hit and he threw me three straight ones so I expected to strike out." he confessed. "Luckily he threw me a fastball on the last one and I got lucky."
Thornton squared up on the offering from Maryland's Jake Drossner, smoking the ball up the middle and hooking it around the freshman southpaw.
The fact that Thornton got a hit in what may be his only college at-bat was a fun anecdote. The bigger story is that his performance the past two weekends in ACC competition has effectively cemented his new role.
"I will never hear the end of that base hit," Fox joked after the game, before seriously discussing his freshman hurler’s weekend contributions. "He closed out the game last night and threw 12 (pitches). He was right on the edge there tonight. That would have been his last hitter (in the ninth inning) if he did not get that guy out tonight.
“He is a strike thrower. So I just want guys out there that are going to throw strikes. If we are going to get beat in the ninth inning I want it to be by guys doing what Maryland did right there (hitting strikes). He is not really a freshman anymore but he is. So it is his first experience of being in that situation."
Fox confirmed after the game Thornton – who has a 0.60 ERA in 45 innings of work this season (highlighted by a 35/5 strikeout/walk ratio and a .196 opponent batting average) -- would not be available during the coming mid-week contests and will indeed be available for relief outings in the ACC weekend series against Virginia Tech.
Thornton is excited about the opportunity, "That is what everyone shoots for, pitching in the ACC series," Thornton said. "Just getting a chance to finally do that, I'm really enjoying it. It has been more competitive so you have to focus more. I've never closed before so it was more intense for me. But, I just got in there and got the job done."
North Carolina’s starting pitching has been mostly dominant, with Kent Emanuel, Benton Moss, Hobbs Johnson and Trent Thornton having started 28 of the team’s 31 games. They’ve accounted for 65 percent of the team’s innings, which has left 100 innings for the other 12 pitchers on staff. With Thornton moving to weekend relief, perhaps the mid-week starts will open up more competition for innings and leverage more experience on the mound, while putting the top arms in line for the critical weekend matches.
With five tough ACC series remaining, and postseason challenges to follow, Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes are preparing their pitching staff for the road to Omaha.