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'Learn to love those situations': Casey Cook propels UNC to series win over Duke

20240217_Skvoretz_UNC-Baseball-Wagner-1031.jpg
UNC redshirt sophomore outfielder Casey Cook (16) strolls through third base after a home run during the men’s baseball game against Wagner at Boshamer Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. UNC won 16-5.

DURHAM — Entering the 2024 season, Casey Cook needed to adapt to a new mindset. 

Fresh off a 2023 campaign that saw the redshirt sophomore left fielder finish with only 23 RBIs — the lowest among the starting rotation — Cook had to learn how to embrace those big moments. To become the player that "drives in those runs," according to head coach Scott Forbes

“Coach [Forbes] said, ‘You gotta learn to love those situations,’" Cook said. “And it's true. Everyone's going to be in them. And I think the biggest thing is, you're just chasing those opportunities. You're chasing RBI's, guys in second, guys in third. Those should be your most fun because you have a chance to put the team on top.”

And if No. 7 North Carolina's wins on Friday and Saturday prove anything, Cook has taken this message and mindset to heart in 2024.

After driving in five runs in the series-clinching victory against No. 11 Duke on Saturday, Cook ended the regular season with 73 RBIs, making him the team leader this season. Time and time again, Cook has delivered in those pivotal moments. And in the final series of the year in Durham, he did just that to help push his team to the ACC regular season title. 

But similar to his first two seasons donning Carolina Blue, Cook struggled to settle into the series. Cook said he didn’t feel great in the box during UNC's first game against Duke, leading to an 0-3 night from the plate on Thursday. Across the lineup, the Tar Heels produced only four hits all evening in their lone loss of the three-game set.

He said he made some minor changes to his load and stance before Friday but ultimately continued to trust what he’s been doing. Cook had to remind himself to love those big situations — to slow things down and embrace it. 

“I was making decisions way too soon,” Cook said. “I wasn't really seeing pitches, so I just tried to push it back a little bit. And not that I make huge strides, but I do think it helped me a little bit.”

In the second game of the series, Cook found himself in one of those critical spots. With the Tar Heels down 3-1 in the fifth inning and a potential series loss staring them in the face, he entered the box with two outs. First-year catcher Luke Stevenson stood on second, and senior shortstop Colby Wilkerson positioned himself on first fresh off a five-pitch walk. 

It was Cook's turn to chase that opportunity and potentially put his team on top. The result?

Cook ripped a two-strike pitch down the right field line, scoring both runners and tying the game. It was his first extra base hit that wasn’t a home run in all of conference play, and sure enough, it came when UNC needed it the most.

“He's been incredible all year,” senior designated hitter Alberto Osuna said. “It feels like he can't miss a barrel, and he's always calm.”

The two-RBI night on Friday was just a taste of what was to come on Saturday.

After driving in two runs to spark a seven-run third inning, Cook was offered a 98-mph 2-1 fastball by Blue Devil reliever Aidan Weaver in the eighth. 

He said he has always been good at slowing himself down when facing hard-throwing pitchers and not jumping at the fastball. He waited on Weaver’s heater and didn’t miss it, blasting a three-run shot just inside the right field foul pole to slam the door on any Duke comeback hopes. 

“You better not groove a fastball to Casey Cook,” Forbes said. “Cause he'll do damage on it and he'll hit some no-doubters.”

In his three seasons at North Carolina, Cook has fully adapted. The outfielder redshirted in 2022 after going down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Last season, Cook batted .317, but Osuna said it was tough for him coming off the surgery. Fast forward to 2024 and his stats are up in almost every major statistical category — runs, hits, homeruns and RBIs. He's learned how to take charge in those game altering scenarios. 

Cook credited the work he put in with hitting coach Jesse Wierzbicki for his development and Forbes shares this same sentiment. 

“Him and Wierz work their tails off together,” Forbes said. “But I like to give the player credit. We always tell him, ‘You're the reason you're great.’”

Ultimately, Cook’s journey has been about maturing at the plate. With each pitch and each at-bat, he said he feels more relaxed in the box. 

And as the moments get bigger and the stakes get higher, he will continue to heed coach Forbes’ words to chase those moments rather than shy away from them.

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“[It’s] just being comfortable in uncomfortable situations,” Cook said. “It's easy to be good when you're comfortable and you're blowing a team out, but in those big, high leverage situations — I’d say just getting more of those situations under your belt, the better you feel at the plate, the more you're going to perform how you're capable of performing.”

@brendan_lunga18

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