Ackley Keeps Rolling Along

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Opposing pitchers had hoped that offseason elbow surgery would slow Dustin Ackley's torrent pace in the batter's box during the 2009 season, but those wishes were dismissed early and often as the junior first baseman blasted his way to ACC Player of the Year honors on Monday.

"It's definitely really special," Ackley replied when asked about earning the award after practice at Boshamer Stadium. "I know there are a bunch of guys out there that had great years, so it's definitely an honor to get an award like that, being the player [of the year] in the conference that you're in. It came as a surprise – I didn't know the [announcement] was coming out today."

The Walnut Cove, N.C. product's statistics – .405 batting average and 17 home runs – are strikingly mundane for a young man that has been so consistently good throughout his career that his current numbers are what's expected from him.

"It's funny, because he's the same," UNC head coach Mike Fox said. "I can't tell any difference in him since the first day he walked in here… From the very first time I ever saw him swing. It's amazing. That's the most amazing thing about it to me is that he's really not any different.

"Same kid, same person, same demeanor, same personality – he's been consistent since Day One… He's grown mostly in the classroom and off the field. Now he'll talk a little bit and he's opened up a little bit, so he's matured that way, but on the field, there's not been a lot of change in him."

Ackley is just the sixth Tar Heel to claim player of the year honors, the first since Brian Roberts won that award in 1998. The 6-foot-1, 184-pounder ranks among the ACC's top three in eight different offensive categories and leads the league in hits with 87, while ranking second in average, home runs, slugging percentage (.744) and on-base percentage (.511). In addition to a team-high 35 extra-base hits, Ackley has added 64 runs, 56 RBI and 11 stolen bases.

But an injury during his high school days finally led to an offseason procedure known as Tommy John surgery to repair a ligament in Ackley's right elbow. The operation was performed in late July, and he wasn't able to resume hitting until October or throwing until November, forcing him to miss fall practice.

"After coming off surgery, you've got to get used to swinging again," Ackley said. "I didn't swing for three or four months, so I think that was the biggest adjustment for me."

The surgery was necessary, however, with a future in professional baseball just around the corner and arm strength being a concern with a potential move to the outfield.

"I think it's been really good – it's a lot better than I thought it was going to be," Ackley said of his current arm strength. "There might be some days where it's sorer than others, but overall, I feel like my arm strength is good enough to definitely play that position… And hopefully with some more rest and some more strengthening, it will get even better."

The Major League Baseball Draft is quickly approaching on June 9th, and various mock drafts have Ackley headed to Seattle to play for the Mariners. While he has only started a handful of games in the outfield this season, Ackley indicated on Monday that he shags balls out there every day, so he's gotten plenty of work on long throws. But if his arm strength is a concern, his ability in the batter's box is a luxurious asset that rarely comes along.

Fox heaped significant praise on his star slugger on Monday, saying, "He's the best I've ever seen – bar none."

For a Tar Heel squad that has struggled swinging the bat this season – .290 overall average, minus Ackley's numbers – they are going to need their first baseman to carry them all of the way to Omaha if that goal is to be attained.

For Ackley, that's nothing more than an average day at the ball park.

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