Mike Fox wishes you could’ve heard the dugout that day, on April 7, after Aaron Sabato sent a ball deep into the trees of Russ Chandler Stadium in Atlanta.
The first-year had just hit his eighth home run of the season, a team high for No. 19 North Carolina. And as Sabato took a slow trot around the bases, in that Sunday game against Georgia Tech, Fox overheard something from a UNC player sitting behind him.
“I would like to, just one time, know what it feels like to hit a ball like that,” the player said.
UNC baseball’s head coach laughed as he shared that anecdote in Boshamer Stadium on Tuesday night. Sabato had just logged two doubles and three RBIs in a win over UNC-Greensboro — an extension of the offense he’s provided, especially as of recent, for the Tar Heels (25-9, 7-5 ACC).
“When you've got your own teammates kind of in awe of how hard and how far you can hit a ball,” Fox said of Sabato. “That's pretty cool.”
A day later against Davidson, the first-year continued the hot streak he’s been on since late March. Sabato got a hit for the ninth consecutive game — the longest active streak of any UNC hitter.
“I didn't even know it was that number, but honestly, I don't pay attention much,” he said on Tuesday. “I just think having the mental confidence every time I'm stepping into the box has really been a huge part of my success lately, these last couple of weeks.”
To get into this groove, though, Sabato had to push through a small slump. In a four-game span that included a full weekend series against Virginia Tech, Sabato went 0-14 at the plate. Fox said a stretch like that is “either going to make or break young hitters.” Sabato’s stats reflect the path he took.
The first-year spoke comfortably about how, earlier this season, he’d get down on himself after poor at-bats. But his veteran teammates kept on encouraging him with a simple phrase: “Just flush it.” Flush that bad pitch he just took. Flush that bad at-bat. Move on to the next one.
“Every time, they always come up and say, ‘We’ve all been through it. We've all been through it.’” Sabato said. “Being able to connect and relate to that experience, knowing it's just going to happen to me — and it will happen; it's baseball — but just having them as role models to teach me and help me through it has been huge.”
Sabato has boosted his batting average to .291 heading into this weekend’s series at Notre Dame. He’s second on the team in doubles (10) and third in RBIs (28). Twelve of those RBIs have come in the last six games.
And he stands at the top of UNC’s list with eight home runs. Perhaps more notably, seven of them have come in ACC play.
On March 17, Sabato hit two home runs in a game against Miami — no UNC first-year had done that since Seth Baldwin in 2009. His home run at Georgia Tech left his teammates in awe.
On March 31, his home run against Duke left his bat with an exit velocity of 114 miles per hour and traveled 436 feet. It was the hardest hit and furthest hit home run since UNC baseball began tracking the stat in 2015.
“He's one of the best hitters I've ever seen and watched,” junior Michael Busch said. “Just the way he approaches every bat ... he doesn't go up there as a freshman.”
Busch and Fox both emphasized that Sabato’s success comes as no surprise. They saw his talent and IQ in fall workouts and the preseason. Fox complimented the first-year’s knack for knowing a ball from a strike, something Fox finds “hard to teach and almost impossible to coach at times.”
Through 34 games, Sabato has proved himself a crucial part of UNC’s offense. When asked if his time in Chapel Hill has gone as expected — he had MLB Draft buzz coming out of high school in Connecticut — the first-year smiled from under his hat.
“This was the best decision of my life,” Sabato said. “When people said, ‘You want the college experience,’ I didn't realize how much fun college baseball is and would be.”
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