Two innings. Two different pitchers. Two home runs. One first-year and one new swing.
UNC baseball center fielder Vance Honeycutt launched two pitches over the Truist Field fence in back-to-back at-bats to begin UNC’s ACC Championship Game against N.C. State. The Salisbury native’s early offensive success, driving in five batters in the first two innings, allowed UNC to jump out to an early lead in its eventual 9-5 win over the Wolfpack on Sunday.
“Every time he goes up, he sees the ball as big as a beach ball,” N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent said of Honeycutt's performance. “That’s a great feeling for a hitter.”
Sunday marked Honeycutt’s second game with two home runs in the conference tournament, and delivered the center fielder his 20th and 21st bombs of the season. The ACC Tournament MVP became the first Tar Heel, and Division I first-year since 2011, to record 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a single season.
But, much like the prospects of UNC reaching an ACC Championship, these feats seemed improbable just a month ago.
After making an early impression as a consistent leadoff batter for the Diamond Heels, Honeycutt had a rough stretch at the plate in late April. In a seven-game span, the first-year was batting at a roughly .230 average and was sequestered to the bottom of the lineup in series losses against Georgia Tech and UVA.
“The game kind of sped up a little bit when I went through that stretch,” Honeycutt said in an interview this past Tuesday. “Just swinging at balls, not really in the strike zone. It’s tough. I think everyone goes through times like that. You just got to trust your hard work, and just keep working to make it out the other side.”
Around this time, the UNC coaching staff identified a tilt in Honeycutt’s load that was causing him to get underneath the ball, resulting in a slump of swinging strikeouts. Working with assistant coach Jesse Wierzbicki, the first-year worked relentlessly to flatten out his swing and improve his barrel speed.
“We worked a lot on bat path,” Honeycutt said on Tuesday. “I think I was in the zone and out of the zone for a very short amount of time, and I didn’t have much room for error. So I think working on that and being able to get my bat in the zone earlier just gives me more room for error."
The mid-season adjustments began to pay off, and head coach Scott Forbes made the decision to move Honeycutt to the cleanup spot in the third game of UNC’s series against N.C. State. Since this lineup change, UNC has won 12 of its last 13 games, a span in which Honeycutt has recorded 24 RBIS on 19 hits.
Ahead of UNC's ACC title game against N.C. State, the Diamond Heels emphasized the matchup as just "one step" in their postgame trek, all in an effort to stay level-headed in the rivalry bout.
Still, when his new, distinctly smooth swing connected on a first-pitch fastball for his second home run on Sunday, Honeycutt couldn’t help but smile as he rounded the bases to meet his team at home. A team that, thanks to one first-year's mechanical tune-ups, adds an eighth ACC Tournament title to the UNC record books.
"Just to watch his (Honeycutt's) growth in such a short amount of time has been really cool,” Forbes said. “I see these kids everyday, so I see things that people don’t see. And what I see with Vance is he listens, he’s extremely coachable and he works. And when you do that, and you’re that talented, you’re going to have success.”