By Bobby Hundley, UNC Athletic Communications
OMAHA --- Freshman closer Trent Thornton is anything but. True, his eight saves are easily the most on the roster, and 23 of his 28 appearances have come out of the bullpen. Fourteen of those 23 relief appearances, however, have been more than one inning. In addition to his five starts, Thornton has gone at least three innings on seven occasions, including four of his last six.
As for the freshman part, head coach Mike Fox is fond of reminding folks that at this point in the season - on the eve of game No. 69 - no one in the Tar Heel dugout is really a freshman anymore.
"At this point we don't think about 'freshman'. We don't think about any of that because sometimes you come out here and roles change...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, hopefully."
The numbers the Charlotte native has produced in 2013 are staggering. He has an ERA of 1.28 and a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 0.89 in 84.2 innings of work. He has struck out 78 batters against just 15 walks and has allowed opponents to hit just .194 on the year.
"He's pitched in pretty big situations all year, and lately - regionals and super regionals - he's been that guy for us," catcher Brian Holberton said of Thornton. "He's going to go out there and give us his best and we all have confidence in him."
Thornton's most noteworthy start of 2013 prior to Tuesday came on March 12 when he carried a no-hitter into the eighth against Gardner-Webb and picked up his third win of the season. But his relief highlights have somehow been more spectacular.
His first long relief appearance was a de facto start as he went the final 6.1 innings after rain pushed the second game of the Clemson series back to Monday. He pitched a vital 6.2 innings of hitless ball in the epic ACC tournament win over NC State. And in perhaps his most dominant outing of the year, Thornton pitched four scoreless frames on just 48 pitches - 39 of which were strikes - in the regional final against Florida Atlantic.
He has the confidence of his coach and of his teammates entering Tuesday's elimination game against LSU. But most importantly, he has confidence in himself.
"Coach told me at the beginning of the year that he was going to start me, relieve me, close me," Thornton said at practice Monday. "It just prepares you for any situation."
Thornton called the chance to start in the College World Series a dream come true, and acknowledged that his experiences over the 2013 campaign have prepared him for the opportunity.
Holberton, the man who will complete the battery Tuesday, agrees.
"He'll do whatever it takes, he'll throw any pitch in any count. He throws like he's seven feet tall and he's got the mentality like he's that."