It took Michael Busch a few seconds to process the question, one seemingly out of left field, before a bashful smile flashed across his face.
“Is Taylor Swift’s ‘Blank Space’ still a no-skip song in your music playlist?”
He said as much in an interview with a local newspaper when he was a junior at Simley High School in Minnesota, a time when his accolades on the football field, not baseball, were what earned him attention from the press.
Considering all that’s changed since then, UNC’s star first baseman in 2018 can be forgiven for briefly forgetting something he said four years ago.
He’s transitioned from hometown hero in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., as the quarterback who led his high school to its first appearance in a state championship game, to preseason All-American and the most dangerous hitter on a UNC team ranked No. 7 as it opens the season Friday against Xavier.
A few years after going undrafted out of high school, the left-handed-hitting Busch is heading into his junior season as a projected early-round selection in this summer’s MLB draft. Scouts are intrigued by his plate discipline and his ability to hit for average and power.
When he burst onto the national scene last year by raising his batting average from .215 to .317 between his first-year and sophomore seasons and going from three home runs to 13, the question from outsiders became: “What’s changed?”
In reality, not a whole lot. Throughout his ascension as one of the nation’s top draft prospects, Busch has stayed true to himself, both with his approach at the plate and his philosophy on the game and life in general.
Those closest to Busch say he’s still the humble star he was growing up, even if the stage is bigger now. The guy who takes a serious enough approach to be better prepared than anyone else while also remembering to keep things loose.
“He just walks around like he’s Michael Busch, old No. 14 for the Simley football team,” said Rex King, Busch’s high school football coach. “He doesn’t have any ego about him."
“Same exact kid,” said Busch’s older brother, Logan.
Even down to the playlist.
“I’m definitely still a Taylor Swift fan for sure,” Busch said.
Logan Busch can remember the first time he thought his brother could be really good at baseball. Logan, a junior in high school at the time, had just become teammates with Michael after he made the varsity squad as an eighth grader, a rare feat at Simley.
But one at-bat in particular raised his eyebrows. Michael crushed a pitch, doubling off the wall in the right-center gap – against a future Division I pitcher.
“That’s when I noticed,” Logan said.
It took Michael until his sophomore year of high school to realize baseball was going to be the sport for him. To be fair, he had options.
In football, he was a three-year starter. And of course there was hockey. You couldn’t grow up in Minnesota and not play hockey.
But there was something about baseball. His father, Mike, was crazy about the game, and Logan went on to play at North Dakota State.
“It just kind of ran in the family,” Logan said.
Baseball in Minnesota, however, is often secondary to football and hockey. The frigid temperatures limit the season to just late spring and summer, a stark contrast from the West Coast and the South, places where the sport can be played nearly year-round.
But there’s still good baseball being played by good players in the Midwest.
Former Tar Heel recruiting coordinator and current Liberty University head coach Scott Jackson found one of them in Busch. The program he became a fan of by watching the College World Series each year wanted him.
“My credit to Scott Jackson and (UNC associate head coach) Scott Forbes for finding him all the way up there,” UNC head coach Mike Fox said.
After what Busch did last season, no kidding
'I've come a long way'
UNC playing in Omaha might have been the norm when Busch was growing up, but it stopped being a regular occurrence by the time he became a Tar Heel.
That changed in 2018, when his breakout season coincided with the end of UNC’s five-year CWS drought.
It’s hard to imagine the Tar Heels getting there without Busch, who attended the CWS in 2015 as a fan with his brother and three friends.
“I couldn’t even dream of playing out there,” he said.
What seemed like an unattainable dream for Busch became a reality for him and his teammates, thanks in large part to him leading the Tar Heels in home runs (13), RBIs (63), slugging percentage (.521), on-base percentage (.465) and walks (55).
Those numbers were posted just one year after a campaign in which he hit below .200 for much of the season and had just two multi-hit games in 55 tries. Last season, Busch recorded two hits on more on 23 occasions.
Opposing pitchers across the ACC soon learned that the guy who got a hit about one in every five at-bats the year before was now one of the toughest outs in the league.
It didn’t come easy.
The transition from high school to college included learning what a real fastball looked like, a big difference from the ones he saw in Minnesota. And then there was getting used to living in the South.
On one of his first trips to North Carolina, he asked a waitress what type of pop the restaurant had, prompting a blank stare ("soda" has since entered his vernacular). Around the same time, the longtime Midwesterner had grits for the first time after never hearing of them — and ate them plain. His Minnesotan accent has even served as comedic relief for his teammates.
“Instead of ‘bag,’ he says ‘beg,’” said UNC pitcher Austin Bergner, also a Cape Cod League teammate of Busch’s with the Chatham Anglers this past summer.
“I’ve come a long way,” Busch said.
The same can be said about his work at the plate. Like Southern cuisine and figuring out what’s acceptable to call a Coca-Cola, college pitching took some getting used to.
“In my (high school) conference, if a guy was throwing above 80, he was good,” Busch said.
Enter Cole Aker, the then-sophomore UNC pitcher who Busch faced in his first at-bat of fall ball as a first-year and greeted him with a fastball in the mid-90s.
“I wasn’t thinking,” Busch said. “I was just like, ‘Hopefully, I can touch it.’”
Power in patience
But thinking is what Busch has always done.
King believes Busch has the rare ability “to see sports at a different speed.”
While his first season at UNC brought about challenges, Busch still had everything he needed in his toolbox to become a good hitter at the college level.
One thing helped the most: repetition. The summer following his first-year season, he had 148 at-bats in the Northwoods League and hit .291, getting more experience under his belt.
The game started to slow down, and the hitting approach he developed in high school – based on the bet that he could outsmart opposing pitchers – led to him putting up monster numbers as a sophomore.
“Some people think it’s all about swing mechanics,” Busch said. “But people don’t really notice it’s just the pitch you’re swinging at. The percentage that you’re going to hit that pitch is very, very low until you wait. Even in the ACC, a pitcher’s going to make a mistake maybe once an at-bat.”
Even if a pitcher avoided a big mistake against Busch, he was fine with sitting back and letting them make four little ones. To hear Fox tell it, Busch “knows a ball from a strike.” His walks more than doubled from 2017 to 2018 (27 to 55), and, despite having 105 additional at-bats, Busch’s strikeouts decreased from 32 to 30.
“He doesn’t usually get himself out by swinging at bad pitches,” Bergner said.
As far as major league teams are concerned, questions remain about Busch’s defense. A season ago, he held down first base for the Tar Heels, but scouts question whether the 6-foot Busch is tall enough to play the position in the majors. Ahead of this season, he’s spent more time practicing in left field than first, Busch said.
Fielding aside, his prowess – and patience – at the plate has Busch ranked as the No. 25 prospect for June's draft by mlb.com.
That’s the last thing he’s thinking about, though.
A multi-sport background
All that comes with playing baseball in Minnesota and Busch being a multi-sport athlete might have led to him being overlooked out of high school, but he wouldn’t have done anything differently. In retrospect, he thinks not focusing solely on baseball has actually made him a better baseball player. He’s even retweeted a link to an article about the dangers of youths becoming injured because of sport specialization.
“I think in today’s day, I just don’t like the focus on one sport as a kid,” Busch said.
Stick-handling the puck in hockey helped with the hand-eye coordination that’s crucial to hitting, Busch said. Playing quarterback in a triple-option offense imparted lessons about the importance of physical and mental toughness.
Those sports also gave Busch more opportunities to experience the thrill of competition.
When he was a junior on the football team at Simley, Busch passed up the opportunity to play in a baseball showcase event in Las Vegas and stayed home for a must-win game in the section finals.He put his personal prospects behind the greater good of his team. Busch hopes to keep a similar mindset with the draft just months away.
His GoHeels biography page features a photo of Busch embracing Fox following UNC’s Super Regional series victory against Stetson to clinch a spot in Omaha. Making more June memories like that one is much more important to Busch than the draft.
“I’m not going to work in the cage for the draft,” Busch said. “I’m going to work in the cage, I’m going to work in the weight room and the field for us to win a National Championship.”
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