Breaking Down the Bats

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After losing five starters from the 2008 College World Series team, it was common knowledge that North Carolina was going to need an injection of talent into the batter's box. But with only three games left before the postseason, are the Tar Heel bats strong enough to return to Omaha?

North Carolina boasted a slew of experienced talent at the plate last season, highlighted by the knack of well-timed hitting in crucial spots. Six different batters hit for better than .300 in '08, lifting UNC's team average to .324 – impressive numbers considering they include 13 postseason contests.

Through 52 games this spring, four batters have surpassed that .300 mark while the team average stands at .299. The current roster has already been outhit in six more games than the '08 squad, despite playing in 16 fewer contests.

Fortunately for head coach Mike Fox, one of his returning players from last year's squad is Dustin Ackley, widely considered a top-10 pick in the Major League Baseball Draft in June. The junior first baseman is batting .405 with 16 home runs, 52 RBI and a .745 slugging percentage – ridiculously average for his career in Chapel Hill.

"I think this year [Ackley's] offensive numbers - power numbers - are up, but I think that this has been his best year when you look at all the left handers we have faced and that he, Kyle [Seager] and Mark Fleury have had to kind of carry the load offensively for us this year," Fox said. "I think with everything that he has had to deal with this year - this being his draft year and coming off of Tommy John surgery - this has been his best season by far. He is just an incredible player."

Seager has upped his average to .385 with 43 RBI and 22 doubles (eight short of his single-season school record), while Fleury is batting .317 with 11 home runs, 57 RBI and a .614 slugging percentage. Left-fielder Ben Bunting rounds out the .300 group, hitting for .315.

But while those statistics are solid, it's the lack of depth and youth on the roster that has posed problems for the Tar Heels. The obvious issue arises from the DH spot.

"We've just fluctuated between four or five designated hitters all year long, and we haven't gotten much production out of any of those guys," Fox said.

The quartet of Brett Thomas, Tarron Robinson, Greg Holt and Ryan Norton has combined for a .191 batting average in 152 total at-bats as designated hitters.

Another concern is fatigue, as a handful of UNC's first-year starters are not used to the day-in, day-out demand that comes with a 55-game regular season. One prime example is freshman Levi Michael, who enrolled at North Carolina in January and exploded as the season started – in the UNC's first 21 games, the second baseman's eight homers shared the ACC lead and was tied for fourth with 26 RBI. During his last 30 outings, Michael has tallied four home runs and 19 RBI.

"Levi hit the wall big-time," said Fox, while also highlighting Michael's 3.25 GPA during his spring semester. "His was mental as much as it was physical. You could see exactly when it happened, too. He was used to playing 25-30 high school games, and when we got to about Game 27 for us, [it hit]."

Things came to a head in last weekend's series loss to N.C. State when North Carolina batted .220 for the weekend.

"We were just pressing a little too much in the box," Fluery said. "Trying to do too much and not moving runners and not taking advantage of the first-pitch strikes they were throwing to us… We've just got to do a better job of getting that leadoff hitter on base every inning."

But as Fox alluded to earlier this week, there's no way to teach experience – that's purely a trait that's developed in the heat of battle, not in the batting cage.

"I think you just have to learn as you go," Seager said. "If you're a young guy that really hasn't had many opportunities – I know from my freshman year – you want to do as much as you can. And if you haven't been playing that much, when you do get an opportunity, you want to go 3-for-3 just to make sure you're in the lineup the next day… If they give you a walk, take the walk instead of trying to hit a double."

There's no doubting that North Carolina has the talent to advance deep into the NCAA Tournament and possibly journey back to Omaha, but the elder statesmen such as Ackley and Seager are bound to have an off-night, and it's on those occasions that their less-experienced teammates will be called on to rise to the occasion and lift the Tar Heels to live another day.

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