With its season on the line Tuesday afternoon in a Loser's Bracket matchup in the College World Series in Omaha, North Carolina is sending freshman right-hander Trent Thornton to the mound against powerhouse LSU.
The rookie fireballer, whose heat has been touching the mid-90s and beyond in recent outings, gets his first huge test as a big game starter against the Tigers, the No. 4 national seed and six-time national champions, as well as this year's SEC champs.
The Tigers were stunned 2-1 by UCLA Sunday evening just as the Diamond Heels were shocked earlier in the day by their arch-rivals N.C. State in an 8-1 rout, turning what most would have predicted before the tournament as the Winner's Bracket game into a Loser's Bracket fight for survival between arguably the nation's top two all-around teams.
North Carolina, of course, has been here in each of the last two weeks, needing victories over Florida Atlantic and South Carolina in do-or-die scenarios just to make it back to Omaha.
"We've been through a lot this year. This is probably the most fun I've ever had playing with any team. It gets emotional, living your dream," said Thornton, who carries an 11-1 record and 1.28 ERA into Tuesday afternoon's start.
If there's the slightest of edges for UNC playing against such a great team like LSU, perhaps it's that they have had to play numerous times with their backs against the wall recently, whereas the Bayou Bengals have had few bumps along the way prior to Sunday evening's setback against the Bruins.
Coming into the CWS, LSU had won five straight postseason games and held a dazzling 57-9 record---a slightly better winning percentage than UNC's 57-10 mark.
"Certainly glad it's a double elimination tournament," said LSU head coach Paul Mainieri after Sunday night's one-run loss to UCLA. "That would be a tough one to end the season on. But we get another chance to play on Tuesday, and we'll get ready to do that."
This, of course, isn't Thornton's first-ever start for North Carolina, but it has been since March 27 when he went seven innings in a victory over Winthrop that he's taken the ball to start a game.
But there's little doubt at this key moment that Thornton has been much better down the stretch than UNC's other top starting options, Benton Moss and Hobbs Johnson.
And with 'no tomorrow,' to coin a phrase, head coach Mike Fox and pitching coach Scott Forbes have no choice but to throw the guy throwing his best right now.
Both Moss and Johnson have been roughed up so far in this year's postseason, while Thornton has thrived pitching in situational relief, long relief, and closing roles.
Over his last 20 innings of work dating back to his 6.2 innings of no-hit ball against NCSU in the ACC Tournament, Thornton has allowed just four earned runs, and against a lineup for LSU that is batting .306 as a team, the Diamond Heels need a guy like Thornton who is hungry and pitching at his best at this crucial juncture.
"You have to give credit to Trent Thornton. He pitched very well. And he's done that all year. It's really special to see something out of a kid like that, that's just a freshman," said senior center fielder Chaz Frank."He wants the ball. He wants the ball in a big-game situation. And we're confident in him."
Ideally Thornton, who will be matched up against LSU left handed sophomore Cody Glenn (7-2, 2.41 ERA), will give Carolina at least five or six innings, keeping them in the game against the big Southpaw, who could give the Tar Heels similar fits as Carlos Rodon did Sunday.
"Trent, we think he's been one of our best guys all year. We've brought him in games before and he's given us five or six innings," said Coach Fox.
"You want your starters to give you five or six innings every single time," said Coach Forbes. "The guys that haven't been to Omaha (such as Thornton), they know they've come back. They've been in games where we've had to scrap, to do what we did against Florida Atlantic, and then fight through it (against South Carolina) and without our starting pitching going deep into the games."
Thornton has pitched well beyond his years over the last month, taking the mound in some of the more stressful moments in recent memory in Carolina baseball and conducting himself with cool poise, as if the rookie had ice water running through his veins.
And now, with a dream season again on the brink, Tar Heel nation can only hope Thornton again brings that poise---and that blistering fastball---to the park on Tuesday.
"The whole team, we haven't given up all year. You've got to keep your composure on the mound," Thornton said.