UNC’s Moran grew into college baseball’s best hitter

acarter@newsobserver.comApril 25, 2013 

  • The Series No. 1 UNC (40-3) at No. 6 N.C. State (33-10)

    Tickets: Sold out.

    SCHEDULED PITCHERS

    6:30 p.m. Friday: Kent Emanuel (8-1, 1.82) vs. Ryan Wilkins (5-1, 3.16)

    6:30 p.m. Saturday: Benton Moss (7-0, 2.81) vs. Carlos Rodon (4-2, 4.48)

    7 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU): Hobbs Johnson (2-0, 2.45) vs. Brad Stone (2-1, 6.23)

— For a while, Colin Moran wore the same pair of socks, over and over. He was on a good roll wearing those socks, so he kept wearing them. Then one day he went hitless, and that superstition ended. He still carries on others.

“I am pretty superstitious,” Moran, North Carolina’s junior third baseman, said earlier this week. “Not crazy, but every day I try to do a couple things.”

Watch him. When Moran runs from the dugout to the field, he touches the bag. When’s he at bat – a frightening sight for opposing pitchers, given Moran is hitting .395 and leads the nation with 67 RBIs – he frequently readjusts the straps of his batting gloves, pulling them loose and then setting them back down again.

Moran does this, he said, because the routine helps him clear his mind when he’s at the plate. It helps him focus.

The thing that helps him focus most, though, is when he comes to bat with runners on base – particularly runners in scoring position. No player in the country has been better at driving home runners, and that might be because no player in the country appears as comfortable as Moran with runners on base.

“I think I do a better job of clearing my head with the bases loaded,” he said. “… I just think less when there’s guys on base, and I think that helps.”

When Moran and the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels begin a three-game series at No. 6-ranked N.C. State on Friday night, the college baseball spotlight will shine on Doak Field. Both teams feature players with major league potential, and both are led by players who are likely to become high draft picks.

Moran already is projected as a top-10 pick, and some have described him as the best hitter in the country. Mike Fox, the UNC coach, wouldn’t disagree. Neither would Scott Jackson, the Tar Heels’ assistant who most closely works with hitters.

Moran arrived at UNC in 2010 with plenty of accolades, and with a legacy to uphold. His older brother, Brian, was an All-American at UNC before the Seattle Mariners drafted him in 2009. Moran’s uncle, B.J. Surhoff, earned national player of the year honors at UNC in 1985 and was the No. 1 overall pick that year.

Both Jackson and Fox were confident that Moran would be good, in time. They might not have expected him to be so good, so quickly.

“I’ll be honest, we had no idea he was going to be that good when we first got him,” Jackson said. “We knew that he was competitive. He had those bloodlines, with his uncle and his family.”

Still, Moran struggled. During his first fall, he batted around .230, Jackson said. Moran’s hands were slower then, and Jackson noticed mechanical issues with his swing and his stance.

Instead of addressing those issues, Jackson took a gamble and left alone Moran’s stance.

“You can’t over-coach kids,” Jackson said. “And he doesn’t have the textbook set up, and his load is a little bit different, I think, than maybe some hitters do. So that’s one thing that as a coaching staff, we didn’t really change. And it would have been easy for us to change.

“We didn’t change anything. We let him do his thing and I’m thankful we didn’t try to change much.”

The strategy worked. Moran in 2011 earned Baseball America Freshman of the Year honors after hitting .335 and driving in an ACC-best 71 runs.

Moran doesn’t remember, specifically, how he learned to hit – not exactly. He just remembers mimicking his older brother, and watching his uncle, Surhoff, who spent 19 seasons in the major leagues.

Growing up, Moran didn’t receive much coaching from Surhoff, at least not one-on-one. Instead, those lessons came from a distance, while Moran watched his uncle play. Some things came naturally, anyway, and Moran’s desire to learn – he’s a self-described “baseball rat” – took care of the rest.

“I’ve always hit a lot,” Moran said, describing how he learned the art of hitting. “And I always kind of lived around the batting cages.”

These days, Moran is in the midst of one of the greatest offensive seasons in school history. He ranks 33rd nationally in batting average, second in runs per game, first in RBIs per game and eighth in on-base percentage.

He has drawn 39 walks and struck out just eight times – the fewest of any of the Tar Heels’ regular starters. And Moran has done all of it in a time of drastic change in college baseball, which has become considerably more pitching-friendly since a rule change before the 2011 season made aluminum bats less lively, and more like wood.

“When you compare these hitters now, you have to take into account the bat did change,” Fox said. “(Former UNC All-American) Dustin Ackley – Dustin could mis-hit a ball and leg it out. He didn’t do that very often, but he could. Colin has to work for his hits.”

Moran was a New York Yankees fan growing up, and so he studied hitters like Paul O’Neill and Derek Jeter and, in more recent times, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira. Nowadays, though, he spends less time studying other hitters and mechanics – including his own – and more time studying pitchers.

That’s why, Fox said, Moran rarely swings at bad pitches. He has an understanding of what’s coming, given the count, and how a pitcher might try to bait him with a pitch outside of the zone.

“It’s the immense feel that he has,” Benton Moss, UNC’s sophomore starting pitcher, said earlier this week. “It’s almost like he’s in the mind of the opposing pitcher. It’s like he knows what you’re going to throw. And if he knows what you’re going to throw and he just doesn’t want to swing at it, he doesn’t have to. He’s got, A – a great eye. And, B – just his approach his second to none.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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