Bolt returns to electrify lineup

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If there’s an ideal baseball player, Skye Bolt is made in his image.

The 6-foot-3, switch-hitting North Carolina freshman already has the aura of a pro, that nebulous “it” factor. It’s in his fearlessness hitting with two strikes, his ability to take pitches just off the plate like they’re two feet outside, his knack for coming up with clutch hits.

Bolt sprays hits to all fields, in all counts. He has home-run power from both sides of the plate. He’s fast, he locks down center field, and he has the arm to throw runners out at any base. That’s average, power, speed, defense and arm strength — baseball’s five tools, the marks of a player who can do everything.

“There aren’t many five-tool players out there that can put them all to use,” said Jay Hood, Bolt’s baseball tutor throughout his teenage years. “But Skye can show every tool in the same game. That’s when you know he’s locked in — he just takes over a game.”

He’s taken over a number this season. The Georgia native is hitting .363, and he was at .392 before missing a month due to injury. He has six home runs and 45 RBIs batting cleanup for the country’s No. 6 team — a lineup position it took him just two games to take over. He’s 9-for-11 stealing bases, he’s made diving catches, and opposing third-base coaches have held runners against his arm.

Heading into the ACC tournament today, UNC holds the top seed, and the Tar Heels are a favorite to reach Omaha — but they’re backing into the playoffs after consecutive series losses. So it would help if a now-healthy Bolt, who started last Tuesday for the first time since April 12, took over a few more.

Bolt is quick to credit God for blessing him with his talent. He’s a religious guy, and he doesn’t want to take his gifts for granted. And he knows tools alone don’t build a major leaguer.

“You’ve got to utilize all your tools and make them skills,” Bolt said. “If that’s the word or report — five-tool player — then I need to become a skilled five-tool player.”

Bolt reluctantly admitted he’s a five-tool player, but ask him if he’s a skilled five-tool player, and there’s no hesitation. The answer’s no.

Bolt said he has to make better baserunning reads and not rely on raw speed. He can’t look in pitches with his head — it throws off his perception of the zone and hurts his power. And he needs to quiet down his lefty stance. His father, Mike, has burned the words into his mind — “Quiet… quiet… explode!” — but it’s not his natural side, and he’s still too violent.

But Bolt’s always been willing to adjust. It’s how he got to the upper echelon of college players, with his sights set on the MLB.

“When he was younger, there were some tools there, but he had a long way to go,” Hood said. “There were certainly a lot of holes that I saw. But it was really rewarding to see how hard he worked.”

The hours in the cage and weight room have never been a question for Bolt, just necessary stops on the road to where he knows he’s going.

That road started on a 50-foot basepath.

“Since I was in tee-ball, my dad was taping up the wrists,” Bolt said. “I was into it, you know. I had the batting gloves, wristband, was always in the dirt.”

Bolt can pinpoint the moment he knew he was a ballplayer — his first home run, which bounced over the fence.

“I was rounding second like it went over,” he recalled. “And they said, ‘Just let him go.’”

He hasn’t stopped.

Bolt in the blue

Bolt ambles into the UNC student union, a walking boot on his foot and a smile on his face.

It’s April 16, and he’s just learned that he’ll be out four weeks with a fractured metatarsal. It’s an unlucky injury — a ball somehow fouled off his back foot. But hobbling around campus, Bolt is still smiling. Coach Mike Fox called that smile his best quality — not his baseball talent, not the confidence he oozes on and off the field.

“I have never seen him — knock on wood — I’ve never seen him when he hasn’t had a bounce to his step and a smile on his face.” Fox said. “And that’s rare.”

If a broken foot can’t get rid of that smile, maybe Fox can stop knocking. Even right after the injury, Bolt wasn’t down on himself — he was mad, and he was focused.

“(I’m) just pissed,” Bolt said in a text message that night. “I’ll come back stronger.”

His first at-bat after the injury, Bolt singled. His first time on the bases after a broken foot, he stole second. He’s resilient, and he moves on quickly. He knows in a game where it’s been 72 years since a major-league hitter succeeded 40 percent of the time, he’s going to fail. Sometimes badly.

Like on April 1, Bolt’s worst day at UNC. That Monday, in a doubleheader against Clemson, Bolt went 0-for-7 and grounded out to end the second game with the winning runs in scoring position. He was swinging through 75-mph hangers like they were 100-mph heat.

His next at-bat, two days later, Bolt went yard.

His coaches say that’s typical. And Juerod Roberts in particular, who coached a 17-year-old Bolt in travel ball with the East Cobb Braves, has the story to prove it.

At a tournament in Florida that summer, Bolt — who Roberts called the centerpiece of that team — got drilled in the arm by a pitch in the quarterfinals. It swelled up so much, he couldn’t grip a bat.

By the semifinals, it wasn’t better. Bolt couldn’t swing. So Roberts told him to fake-bunt, all at-bat, every at-bat. After all, Bolt was a well-known, respected player. Teams pitched him carefully. And East Cobb’s opponents never knew he couldn’t swing.

“The first at-bat? Fake bunt. The full at-bat,” Roberts said with a laugh. “And can you believe he walked?”

Bolt walked twice in that game. He didn’t swing once. The Braves advanced, but the finals were the same day, they were playing a loaded Florida team, and their centerpiece could still barely hold a bat.

Roberts, who calls Bolt his brother, told Skye to be careful, that his career outweighed one tournament. So Bolt didn’t even swing in batting practice. But in the second inning, he decided to cut loose. And Roberts said he’ll never forget what happened next.

“How about, first pitch — pow! Over the scoreboard.”

East Cobb won the tournament.

“You know, he never complained. He never grimaced,” Roberts said. “We have those players where if something’s wrong with them, they’ve got to show it.

“But that was never Skye. He’d be a leader.”

Bolt, electric

It’s March 17, two days after Miami handed UNC its first loss of 2013, and Bolt draws a cross in the dirt and steps to the plate against the Hurricanes. And with two outs in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game, Bolt launches the series-winning three-run homer deep into the Chapel Hill night — his biggest hit of the year.

Bolt draws that cross with his bat every at bat. It carries a lot of weight.

“There are several meanings behind the cross,” said Bolt’s father, Mike. “Giving him balance, giving him confidence. Strength. Security. Safety.”

Skye started drawing it at age 15, when he got serious about switch-hitting. He had never batted lefty in a game, so he turned to God.

“I was like, ‘I’m gonna need your help on this one,’” Bolt said. “Because it was my first time doing it, you know? That’s where the cross came from.”

But the roots of Bolt’s switch-hitting run deeper, back to Woodstock, Ga., where he grew up watching the Atlanta Braves. Bolt idolized switch-hitting Chipper Jones, and Chipper made his way into Skye’s game — in his home run trot, his visible confidence, his left-handed stance and swing.

“You’ve got to see my dorm room now,” Bolt said. “I’ve got all the articles from this past year, anything he’s said as far as style and approach to hitting.”

Playing in his backyard and mimicking Jones, a young Bolt turned into a switch-hitter. Too strong on his right side to comfortably swing a wiffleball bat, he developed a whip-like lefty swing that internalized Chipper’s tendencies.

To this day, there are traces of that swing in Bolt’s bat tilt. Of course, it’s evolved since then, with the help of his dad — a former college ballplayer — and hitting coaches. Bolt even hit lefty his entire 16-year-old season to eliminate the gap between sides.

The next year, his junior year of high school, everything came together. Bolt started to look like the player he is now. So that summer, when Roberts recruited his team, Bolt was the first player he approached.

East Cobb has one of the best travel programs in the country. Roberts said it has about 25 alumni currently on MLB active rosters. Players like Jason Heyward, Brandon Phillips and Buster Posey all passed through East Cobb.

“The thing about it is, you only get the opportunity to coach a Skye Bolt every so often,” Roberts said. “He’s a special kid.”

By now, Bolt’s left side has caught up to the point that teammate Colin Moran, an elite left-handed hitter, said halfway through the season, he didn’t know it wasn’t Bolt’s natural side.

But Bolt’s childhood isn’t always hidden behind the grown ballplayer. It crops up now and then, like when Bolt posed for the cover of Scope, a UNC fashion magazine, in February. Bolt’s mom runs a modeling agency, and he was a child model.

“I guess I was a cute kid,” Bolt joked. “But I got to the age of about 10, and my buddies at school were giving me heck about it. And I decided I was gonna be an athlete, and I told my mom, ‘I’ve got to stop doing this.’”

And sometimes, Bolt’s upbringing sneaks into the ballpark. In a game against Maryland, Bolt lined a foul ball into the Boshamer Stadium stands that hit a fan in the arm. That night, he autographed a baseball — “Get well soon. Skye Bolt” — and made sure she got it.

After another game, Bolt’s dad gave him $20 out of his wallet. Skye’s friend Hannah was visiting him that weekend, and as Mike watched them walk away, he turned to his wife Connie and said, “You know where that money’s going, right? He’s gonna give it to Hannah for gas.” Before they turned the corner, Mike saw Skye hand Hannah the 20.

“It was the right thing to do,” Skye said, downplaying the gesture. “The small things, right?”

On top of those isolated moments, there are the everyday signs, like the cross and Bolt’s kneeling pregame prayers on the third-base line. The residue of his early years permeates Bolt’s game — not just in the tics in his stance and swing, but in the way he plays the sport.

“He relishes being on the field and playing — and playing like a little kid, playing like a Little Leaguer,” Fox said. “He’ll tell you after a big game, ‘That was fun,’ and he means it. It’s refreshing to see that, and he kind of exudes it.”

So moments like the home run against Miami are culminations that show the results of Bolt’s long development. The real culmination, though, hasn’t happened yet.

Skye’s horizon

Bolt’s already been drafted, by the Washington Nationals in the 26th round. It was a good-faith gesture, so that he remembers Washington when he’s draft-eligible again in 2015. But he almost went 79th overall to the Cleveland Indians, who made him an offer just shy of seven figures. It wasn’t worth it.

“I don’t think I was ready,” Bolt admitted. “I really don’t. Had I not come to school, I’d have been in pro ball out in Florida or Arizona, not necessarily getting the nutrition I need on an individual level. Just thrown into the grind.”

Gaining weight the right way will be crucial for Bolt. He’s skinny, and adding some weight should elevate his power and help him adjust to pro ball.

“If he stays healthy and puts on the weight he needs to,” Hood said, “I don’t think it’s gonna take long for him to make it to the big leagues.”

So Bolt traded a signing bonus for what he hopes will be a long-term payoff. He came to North Carolina, a family environment where he won’t get lost in the shuffle. At UNC, Bolt can emulate Moran and ace Kent Emanuel, who have become two of the NCAA’s best players after putting on upwards of 20 pounds at Carolina.

“When you look at the strength, weight and physical progression of those two guys since they’ve been here,” Mike Bolt said, “there’s no doubt in my mind that’ll be Skye in 12 to 18 months.”

Yes, those who have watched Bolt play recognize how bright his future is. It’s why Dylan Deal, Bolt’s high school coach, said, “He’s gonna be making a lot of money one day playing this game.”

It’s why Hood said, “His tools translate not only to professional baseball, but to a very top prospect, and possibly a very, very high draft pick.”

And it’s why Fox said, “I’m looking forward to coaching him for the next two-and-a-half years,” and didn’t mean three-and-a-half — he knows Bolt is likely going pro after his junior season.

Of course, the “if he stays healthy” qualifier is always there. So much depends on those four words. The broken foot was a fluke, but nevertheless a reminder of how things can go wrong. That doesn’t stop Bolt from visualizing himself as a major leaguer every day.

“I’m gonna play Major League Baseball on a 25-man roster,” Bolt said. “I fully expect myself to play 162 games for one of the 30 ballclubs.”

Maybe it’s destiny.

In a 2001 Ingles supermarket commercial from back in his modeling days, a six-year-old Skye Bolt looks up open-mouthed at Greg Maddux as the Braves great gives him pitching tips.

“At Ingles,” Maddux says, “one quick stop is all you need to feed a whole roster of future big leaguers.”

He didn’t know the truth of what he’d said.

Thanks for reading.

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