Michael Russell thrives in leadoff spot

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Michael Russel, junior shortstop from Huntersville, returns a hit to first base during the Tuesday baseball game against North Carolina A&T at Boshamer Stadium in Chapel Hill.

Typically a middle-of-the-order hitter, North Carolina junior shortstop Michael Russell and the leadoff batting spot were unfamiliar acquaintances.

But with the Tar Heels desperate for a spark after a six-game losing streak, coach Mike Fox decided to shuffle the deck.

Without even telling his team’s best hitter before he reached Boshamer Stadium last Tuesday, Fox had Russell’s name scribbled at the top of his lineup card for a game against UNC-Wilmington.

Did the change in the lineup translate to Russell’s bat? Not immediately.

He went for 1-for-9 in his first two games at the spot. But in his next three, Russell scorched opposing defenses to the tune of 10 hits in 13 at-bats, including a 4-for-4 night Tuesday to drive UNC past N.C. A&T 10-0.

Something clicked, but Russell can’t quite pinpoint the reason. And he’s not yet convinced it’s his new position in the batting order.

“Maybe I’m getting good at getting my batting gloves on real quick in the first or something,” Russell said before cracking a smile. “I guess it’s kind just like any other spot except I have to hurry to hit for my first at-bat. But after that, I don’t think your position really matters after your first at-bat anyways.

“It’s not too much different. So I seem to be adjusting pretty well to it.”

Fox agreed. The batting order essentially becomes obsolete after the first set of at-bats. The true motivation for his amendment to the lineup that included moving up both Russell and freshman second baseman Wood Myers to the top of the order was for late-game situations.

“We need to get those two guys in the box as many times as we can,” Fox said. “If you get to that eighth, ninth, 10th inning and those guys roll around. If you score a few runs, they’re going to get that fifth at-bat and that’s important to us because they’re two of our better hitters and guys who’ve been most consistent for us.

“Michael’s done well so it’s kind of sparked him a little bit. It’s hard to tell sometimes, hitting in the order and what it does for guys. But it’s helped Michael.”

Senior designated hitter Tom Zengel attributed the overall team’s offensive production to Russell’s bat.

“He kind of sets the tempo of the game,” said Zengel, who’s also moved up in the batting order. “He’s probably one of the most competitive players I’ve played with and he’s just, even when we’re not playing like on practice days, days when we’re in the weight room, he’s always giving 110 percent.

“It rubs off on other people. So he kind of sets the table and everybody tries to play as hard as him and match his intensity level.”

For Russell, as of late, his job of setting the table has relied upon getting things started.

And he’s unsure of whether he’ll remain in the spot.

But for now, Russell doesn’t mind being the first to take the plate each game.

Even if that means he has to put on his batting gloves a little quicker.

sports@dailytarheel.com

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