LUBBOCK, Texas - If College of Charleston pitcher Tyler Thornton doesn't get to throw against Texas Tech in their NCAA super regional here, that's OK with him.
The way Thornton figures it, if he's not given the ball on Monday for Game 3 of the best-of-three series, it probably means the Cougars have wrapped up an appearance in the College World Series and are on their way back to Charleston.
But if a spot in the College World Series is on the line Monday, the Cougars might not have a better series closer than Thornton.
Twice in the last two weeks Thornton has been masterful when the Cougars' season was at stake. In the clinching game of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament May 24, Thornton threw eight shutout innings against William & Mary for a 6-4 victory that sent the Cougars to the Gainesville Regional.
This past Monday, Thornton threw a complete-game four-hitter against Long Beach State for a 4-2 victory that put the Cougars in this weekend's super regional.
"As a pitcher, you want the ball in those situations," said Thornton, who is 7-5 this season with a 3.03 earned run average. "I like having the ball with the season on the line. I want to be out there."
It is just that kind of attitude that has helped the true freshman thrive in those pressure situations over the last couple of weeks, said College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee.
At Wade Hampton High School, Thornton was the Generals' go-to pitcher. It's a role he relished in high school and hoped to duplicate in college.
"Tyler was used to being the guy, so we knew he was capable of filling that role for us at some point during his career with us," Lee said. "When he was senior at Wade Hampton he set the state record for strikeouts. He threw over 100 innings. He grew up being the guy and we felt like he could do that here with us, I just didn't think it would be during this true freshman season."
Thornton has come a long way since February. In his first collegiate appearance against nationally ranked North Carolina, the Tar Heel batters rudely welcomed Thornton to college baseball. He lasted just an inning, giving up seven runs, four hits and walking two batters. It wasn't exactly the start Thornton had been hoping for.
"It was definitely humbling," Thornton said.
Lee continued to use Thornton out of the bullpen, and the 6-5, 240-pound right-hander had mixed results.
"Tyler was having a typical freshman season," Lee said. "He would have some good outings and then he'd struggle. We knew it was going to take some time for him to figure it out. I was confident that once he did, he'd be a very good pitcher for us."
Thornton was eased into the mid-week starting role, throwing well in back-to-back starts against South Carolina and Jacksonville.
When the CAA scheduled rolled around, Lee had seen enough to give Thornton the opportunity to win the Cougars' Sunday starting role.
Thornton began to thrive. He lasted no less than six innings in each of his final five CAA starts.
"He gave us a quality start it seemed like every time he was out there," Lee said. "Tyler has exceeded all of my expectations. You just never envision a freshman ever being able to come in and play as well as Tyler has as consistently as he has,"
If the Cougars get to Monday with a trip to the College World Series on the line, Lee can't think of anyone else he'd rather have on the mound than Thornton.
"If you look at his last four or five starts over the year, he's probably been our best starter," Lee said. "He's gotten stronger as the year has gone on and he's proven what he can do with our season on the line."
Game 1 of the super regional is Saturday at 1 p.m.
College of Charleston starting pitcher Tyler Thornton throws to home plate during the first inning of an NCAA college baseball regional tournament game against Long Beach State in Gainesville, Fla., on Monday. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)×