How a journal and a little superstition helped UNC's Brandon Riley become a hot hitter

North Carolina’s Brandon Riley went from a starting the season slow to being one of the hottest hitters in baseball.
North Carolina’s Brandon Riley went from a starting the season slow to being one of the hottest hitters in baseball. rwillett@newsobserver.com

In his helmet cubbyhole in the Tar Heels' dugout, North Carolina junior outfielder Brandon Riley keeps a journal and a pen.

Before every at-bat, he reads what he wrote in the days before. He writes notes from scouting reports on the pitcher he is about to face. After each at-bat, Riley writes what he noticed from his own plate appearance. What were the pitcher's tendencies? What did Riley do wrong, and what did he do right?

It's an unconventional approach, but one that helped Riley go from an .094 batting average after the first month of the season in February, to the third highest batting average on the team (.304) by the end of the ACC tournament, which concluded last weekend. He is also currently tied for the second most hits on the team at 66.

Riley has been a huge part of the Tar Heels' success this season. UNC (38-18) will enter the NCAA tournament Friday as a No. 1 seed in its regional and the No. 6 overall seed. The Tar Heels are 31-10 when Riley has at least one hit and 7-8 when he doesn't. If UNC wins the Chapel Hill regional, it will host a Super Regional, the prize for being a top-eight seed in the tournament.

Along with Riley's .304 batting average, he started in all 56 games for UNC this season. He hit five home runs and had 47 runs batted in.

"I think it honestly benefited me," Riley said of his slow start to the season. "Because it was something I had to work through. It kind of made me focus in."

In UNC's first nine games of the season, Riley was 3-for-32 from the plate. He also struck out 11 times. UNC as a team, which started the season 4-5, was struggling, too. Riley said he felt like he was too anxious at the plate. Instead of taking his time, he would set up too early in the batter's box, he said.

UNC baseball coach Mike Fox said he even considered sitting Riley for a game or two to allow him to relax. But he decided against it. He knew Riley had a history at UNC as a quality hitter. As a sophomore, he hit .317 and knocked in 52 RBI's, a team high last year.

"I tell our players all the time, if you have a history here, good or bad, hopefully a good one, then I rely on that history," Fox said. "That history being, I've watched Brandon Riley play for two seasons here, I've watched him drive in 52 runs last year. I've seen him in the summer. I've seen what he's capable of doing, so I know it's in there.

"It was just a matter of when with Brandon."

Finding his rhythm

Riley's "when" came in March.

It was then that Riley slowly started to put the ball in play and find his rhythm. Since his slow start, he has been among the hottest hitters in college baseball. He has hit safely in 21 of his last 23 games. For a 10-game stretch from April 28 to May 17, he recorded at least two hits in each game.

"It's quite extraordinary what he's done since his .094 start in February," Fox said. "But again that was a small sample size. That's only 14 games. And in baseball that's nothing."

Riley started to take his time in the batter's box and set up later. He said it helped his focus level, which allowed him to see and track the ball better as it came out of the pitcher's hand. After each at-bat, he'd write down what he learned. It was something he started doing late last season.

"I knew what I wanted to do, but when it got game time, and I was up at the plate, it's easy to forget," Riley said.

He said keeping the journal helped him remember what he'd forgotten, and also helped him focus more on the things he saw and could improve on at the plate for his next at-bat. It helped him get out of his early slump, too.

Very superstitious

Riley has the same routine for each game.

He wears the same tights and the same two undershirts, but a different color for home and away. When he gets dressed, he first puts on his tights, then his left sock and then the right, his undershirt, then his jersey.

Before walking to the plate after taking his practice swings, he rubs pine tar on his batting gloves.

Riley, who mostly hits cleanup for UNC, said his routine sometimes changes depending how well he's performing. If he's playing well he'll continue to do what he's doing until it no longer works.

Before every batting practice, the players throw a little to warm up. Riley said one day he threw more than normal, and noticed his production increase. So he started to throw more after that.

"I started really getting hot when I started throwing more during BP (batting practice)," Riley said. "If it works, it works."

If you ask Riley's teammates who the most superstitious person on the team is, the answer for some is obvious.

"I'd have to say Brandon Riley," UNC sophomore first baseman Michael Busch said without hesitation. "And you know, he can keep doing whatever he's doing right now because he's probably one of the hottest hitters at the plate right now."

"He's been a big factor in how we've been doing."

Riley laughed when told of his teammates answer.

The Tar Heels will need Riley's production to advance to the Super Regional round. Having hit safely in 21 of his last 23 games, Riley is hot right now, so he won't change a thing.

"I'll be sticking to the same routine, trying to put together quality at-bats," Riley said.

Chapel Hill Regional

Friday's games

No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 4 N.C. A&T, 2 p.m. (ESPN3)

No. 2 Purdue vs. No. 3 Houston, 7 p.m. (ESPN3)

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Alexander, 919-829-4822; @jonmalexander