Here's why shortstop Ike Freeman has been UNC's surprise MVP this season

UNC coach Mike Fox calls shortstop Ike Freeman, right, the team MVP.
UNC coach Mike Fox calls shortstop Ike Freeman, right, the team MVP.

It might surprise some people that North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox calls sophomore shortstop Ike Freeman the team’s MVP this season.

Freeman doesn’t lead the Tar Heels in batting average, homers or runs batted in, but is the leader in one major category: biggest void filled.

The Tar Heels needed someone this season to replace All-American Logan Warmoth at shortstop. Freeman seemed an unlikely choice after hitting .174 as a freshman but won the fight to be the starter and hasn’t given it up.

“To me he’s been our most valuable player, from start to finish, because of the position he’s playing and how well he’s done,” Fox said Saturday after the Tar Heels finished the regular season 22-8 in the ACC, earning the No. 1 overall seed in the ACC Championship.

Freeman, a former East Rowan High standout from Rockwell, was named third-team All-ACC on Monday after hitting .324 in ACC games and .280 overall. Batting fifth in the lineup, he's third on the team with 42 RBIs and dependably sound in the field. On Monday he was named All-ACC baseball third team.

“If you told me Ike Freeman would hit in the five-hole for us when we started in the fall. … I mean he was battling to even play,” Fox said. “We didn’t know who was going to play shortstop for us.”

Warmoth hit a team-best .336 last season for UNC and won the Brooks Wallace Award as the nation's top college shortstop. Named an All-America and first-team All-ACC, he was a first-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft, taken with the 22nd selection.

UNC baseball coach Mike Fox discusses the effect of the Tar Heels' postseason disappointment in 2017 and having the No. 1 seed in the 2018 ACC Championship after completing a sweep of Virginia Tech on May 19, 2018.

“After a guy like Logan leaves you’re never going to be able to fill those shoes, but you can’t do a much better job than Ike Freeman has this year,” said Kyle Datres, a junior third baseman. “He kind of came out of nowhere and has been a huge boost for us.”

Freeman spent most of last season playing games at second base and pinch-hitting. If you had told him he’d be batting fifth in the lineup this season …

“I started every year in high school, so coming here and not starting was weird for me,” Freeman said. “I’d try to be locked in during the games. Often I’d come in in the late innings to pinch hit, which is very difficult to do, coming off the bench.

“The biggest thing was my confidence. Last year I just didn’t have much confidence because I knew if I didn’t hit I may not start the next game.”

Freeman said he spent a lot of time before his classes in the batting cage, working with assistant coach Jesse Wierzbicki. In high school it was all too easy for Freeman — see the ball and hit it. College pitchers are craftier, faster, better.

“I really didn’t want to be known as a defensive player,” Freeman said. “I had a lot of holes in my swing. I had to get my hands back and be on time.

“But in the fall I still struggled hitting. There was a lot of pressure because I definitely wanted to start. I just had to relax. If I’m comfortable in the box I’m fine.”

Named the starter at shortstop, Freeman found a comfort zone. He has 13 multi-hit games this season, albeit with few extra-base hits.

In UNC’s series sweep of Virginia Tech, Freeman had some sparkling defensive plays in the 9-1 opening win, throwing out a runner at home plate from deep in the outfield grass. On Friday, he had three RBIs in an 11-2 win.

“From where he started in the fall to where he is now, it has been a huge accomplishment on his part,” Fox said. “He has had big swings of the bat for us and really played solid defense. I think that’s been the key for our team.”

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