OMAHA, Neb. — North Carolina players have memories of Dustin Ackley that go back 10 years, and most seem to involve the kind of record-setting hitting performance he produced Tuesday.
Ackley and Tar Heels teammate Kyle Seager played against each other in AAU games when they were 11, and Ackley was the opposing shortstop and leadoff hitter.
"It never failed -- he'd lead off the game with a home run," said Seager, who now provides protection for Ackley as the No. 3 hitter in the lineup behind Ackley.
"Every single game. It was unbelievable. We'd finally get him out eventually, but he still got his."
When Ackley arrived at North Carolina his freshman year, not much had changed.
"When we first started playing with him in the fall, we were like, 'This kid's really good, but maybe he's just really hot during the fall,' " junior second baseman Ryan Graepel said.
"Well, three years later, he hasn't cooled off a bit. If anything, he's just gotten hotter and hotter. He's by far the best hitter I've ever seen."
Major league scouts agree.
Ackley was the second player selected in the 2009 MLB draft last week by the Seattle Mariners as his remarkable college career nears an end.
Ackley set a College World Series career record for hits during his 5-for-6 game in the Tar Heels' 11-4 victory over Southern Mississippi on Tuesday, setting up an elimination game rematch tonight against Arizona State (50-13), which beat UNC in the opener, 5-2 in 10 innings.
Ackley has 27 hits in three trips to Omaha, breaking the CWS record held by Stanford's Sam Fuld (24, 2001-03) with a third-inning single.
The thought that Ackley might choose to celebrate the feat in the dugout afterward, or even acknowledge it, brought chuckles from Graepel and other members of the Tar Heels' traveling party nearby.
"That would be completely out of character for him," Graepel said.
"He's an incredible player, and he's so humble about everything. He deserves everything he gets. He doesn't even realize how good he is. He has never bragged about any sorts of accomplishments he's had. He doesn't boast after a big game. He's even-keel, whether he had a great game or a bad game.
"We just try to keep up with him."
Ackley has hit safely in all 14 College World Series games in his three seasons. He is the Tar Heels' career leader with 345 hits, and his next hit will give him 111 this season, tied with Sam Houston State's Braeden Riley for the NCAA lead. Riley's season is over.
For all his bat appeal, major league scouts expect Ackley to move from first base when he turns pro, pointing to his speed -- 59 career doubles and 43 career stolen bases -- as tools that will play almost anywhere.
Ackley, 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, has heard he might be shifted to the outfield, and he seems OK with that. There has been speculation he could end up at second base.
"I've heard people don't like me at first base," he said. "I guess first basemen are bigger guys. They want power there, and they don't really project power for me, I guess. I guess outfield is where they are projecting with me. I'll play anywhere they want."
Ackley has heard his skill set compared to that of Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley, something Ackley finds difficult to grasp. "It's hard to be compared to people who have done so much in the major leagues when I've only been a college player," Ackley said.
One National League scout throws another name into the mix -- Darin Erstad, who was the first player taken in the 1995 draft and continues his career with Houston this year, his 14
Erstad had a 20-20 season for the Angels in 2000, when he hit .355 with 25 home runs, 100 RBIs and 28 stolen bases.
"Dustin is a very advanced college hitter. He does a lot of things very well," the scout said.
"He's a guy who can beat you in a lot of different ways. He's an above average runner, a very easy runner, a deceptive runner. He's going to hit. He has power. One of the better things he can do is the quality of his swing. It stays in the zone. His hand-eye coordination ...
"I think he's very advanced at first base. I've never seen him play center field, but I know that's been talked about. The way he runs, with his baseball IQ, it certainly sounds like it is something he could do as well.
"Is that Darin Erstad in his high-impact years with the Angels type of player? Fair enough."