The nine-hole hitter —
It's a spot usually reserved for a baseball team’s most inconsistent batter. Though not the flashiest role, one who rounds out a batting order tends to contribute more on the defensive end.
This describes North Carolina sophomore Colby Wilkerson.
The second baseman wasn’t even a full-time starter until a little under a month ago, when head coach Scott Forbes decided to roll the dice and insert Wilkerson into the lineup against Charleston Southern.
Since then, the Oxford, N.C. native has been a catalyst for the Diamond Heels’ defensive improvements. However, it was his performance at the plate in North Carolina’s 15-4 victory over Hofstra on opening day of the Chapel Hill Regional that merits the most attention.
Before any signs of a blowout win could take place in front of a sold-out Boshamer Stadium, the Pride made their presence known with a solo home run in the first inning.
“(Hofstra) was ready and they were scrappy,” Forbes said. “They are an older team and we knew they wouldn’t back down.”
By the second inning, Hofstra had sophomore pitcher Max Carlson’s number, launching a second home run off his patented fastball to take a 2-1 lead.
When it looked as if the Pride were on the verge of adding to their one-point lead in the second inning, Wilkerson stepped up.
After a double, Hofstra junior Michael Florides lasered a ground ball between the 3-4 gap that appeared to be making its way to the outfield to score another run for the Pride.
But there was Wilkerson — darting to scoop up the ball with ease. With a toss off of his weak foot, he secured the inning's second out at a crucial time for UNC.
Wilkerson made the groundout look effortless, but Forbes knew it was anything but that.
“It was one of the biggest plays of the game,” he said. “We didn’t make that play during (our losing) stretch.”
Then, the Diamond Heels’ bats erupted.
In the bottom of the second inning, sophomore catcher Tomas Frick launched his second homer of the season to right-center field. Shortly after that, both sophomore Mac Horvath and junior Danny Serretti sailed balls past the outfield wall in the third and fifth innings, respectively.
North Carolina’s offense couldn’t be stopped.
“It’s relieving to see when your offense has your back,” Carlson said.
Yet, through all the loud rings of aluminum that made the Tar Heel faithful gasp in awe, it might have been the shortest hit that stood as the game’s most impressive.
With painted corners in the fourth inning, Wilkerson came up to bat. Catching Hofstra off guard, he laid down a squeeze bunt — a sputtering tap that traveled down the first base line.
First baseman Zack Bailey was confronted with a choice between throwing home to save a run or taking the easy out at first. But the sophomore thought too long, and he missed out on both plays.
Executing a squeeze bunt is hard, but doing so and getting to first base safely is close to impossible.
To Wilkerson’s teammates, however, the fact that the sophomore pulled off such a play comes as no surprise.
“(Wilkerson) is a grinder,” Horvath said. “He goes 100 percent every game and works hard.”
This effort was displayed again three innings later when Wilkerson blooped an RBI single to shallow left field, his second of three hits on the afternoon.
Sure, Wilkerson didn’t have a single home run on a day when the Tar Heels shot five balls out of the park, nor did he have the most extravagant or powerful hits off his barrel.
But, when the season is on the line, everyone has to step up in different ways. And when the bottom third of a batting lineup — lead by Wilkerson himself — accounts for a half dozen hits in an NCAA Tournament game, Forbes knows there’s only one way to rationalize such an outing.
“That’s pretty dang good,” he said.