The 6-foot, 170-pound right-hander was alerted to the possibility of starting his first game since March in a text from pitching coach Scott Forbes on Sunday night.
When UNC arrived at Creighton’s Kitty Gaughan Pavilion for practice on Monday morning for practice, Forbes announced the decision: “Thornton – you’re on the bump.”
If UCLA and its left-handed heavy bats had lost to LSU, junior southpaw Hobbs Johnson would have gotten the nod. But with only three lefties in LSU’s batting lineup, Forbes made the decision to put Thornton (11-1, 1.28 ERA) on the mound instead of weekend starter Benton Moss, who has allowed 14 ER over his last 18.0 IP.
“You always want to make sure you get your best guys on the mound, so if you get those wins, they can come back,” Forbes said. “If we play well tomorrow and Trent gives us a good start, he can come back in this tournament.”
Thornton has emerged as UNC’s best pitcher in recent weeks while working out of the bullpen. The Charlotte, N.C. native won all five of his starts early in the season, but hasn’t started a game since a 7.0-inning outing against Winthrop on Mar. 27.
“Trent has not been a reliever all year,” Forbes said. “He’s still more of a starting pitcher; that’s just who he is. He just had to put him in that closer’s role because he was so good and our other guys were throwing so well.”
Thornton admits to preferring a starting role, but was willing to fill whatever role the coaching staff needed this season.
“Coach told me at the beginning of the year that he’s going to start me, he’s going to relieve me and he’s going to close me, so just be prepared for all three of those roles,” Thornton said.
After a string of 11 appearances topping out at 2.1 IP, Thornton played a critical role in UNC’s 18-inning win over N.C. State in the ACC Tournament, throwing 6.2 innings of no-hit ball. He’s allowed four earned runs on 13 hits in 14.0 innings in NCAA Tournament play.
“It’s about who’s got the best stuff and who’s been pitching well for us and who can get us off to a good start,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said.
Thornton’s arsenal includes a fastball, a changeup, a slider and a curveball.
“I probably throw more fastballs, but I’m comfortable throwing any pitch in any count,” Thornton said.
UNC has leaned on Thornton and Chris McCue out of the bullpen during the NCAA Tournament, which forces adjustments ahead of Tuesday’s game. Forbes indicated that Johnson would be available in relief against LSU and could see action along with McCue and sophomore righty Trevor Kelley.
Forbes prepped his rookie arm for his first start in front of 25,000-plus at TD Ameritrade Park with talk of embracing the moment. As N.C. State’s Carlos Rodon showed on Sunday, it’s a matter of getting through the first batter and then settling down.
“As a kid you dream about pitching in games like these in the College World Series,” Thornton said. “I’m a little nervous, but that comes with every game I pitch. I’m really excited.”
Thornton can look to a teammate for plenty of motivation – Kent Emanuel threw a four-hit, complete game shutout against Texas in his first College World Series start as a freshman in 2011.