Freshman Of The Year: Dustin Ackley

See also: 2007 Freshman All-American Team

OMAHA–There aren’t a lot of goofy Dustin Ackley stories floating around.

When Ackley showed up for a television pre-production meeting with three older North Carolina players before the Chapel Hill super-regional, he just sat quietly in the corner while his teammates prattled on. Eventually, one of the producers started to apologize to Ackley for not asking him more questions, but shortstop Josh Horton interrupted to say that’s just the way Ackley likes it.

When pressed a couple of weeks later at the College World Series for an offbeat Ackley anecdote, Horton came up empty.

“There’s nothing I can throw him under the bus for, I wish I could,” Horton said. “He’s just that type of kid. He’s all smiles, and real shy, but when it comes down to being at the ballpark, he is all business. He’s good at what he does, and he’s definitely been a crucial part of our success.”

What Ackley does is hit. In fact, UNC’s freshman first baseman led the nation and set a new single-season school record with 119 hits. He finished the season batting .402/.448/.591 with 10 home runs and 74 RBIs in 296 at-bats, helping to power the Tar Heels back to the CWS finals for a second straight season. His season to remember earned Ackley Baseball America’s Freshman of the Year honors.

But most of those memories were created on the field, apparently.

“There really aren’t any Dustin Ackley stories, not really,” UNC closer Andrew Carignan said. “He’s pretty much all business. He may not be the loudest guy, but in our lineup he might be the loudest guy.”

Yellin’ With His Hands

Ackley burst onto the scene last fall, making plenty of noise with his bat while also learning how to play first base after spending most of his prep career at North Forsyth (N.C.) High as an outfielder. Ackley stayed after practice every day in the fall. The North Carolina coaches drilled him on sprinting to the bag and squaring, and hit him tennis balls with a tennis racket and made him catch them with one hand.

“The biggest adjustment he made was learning how to play first base,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “That was huge for our team, that’s getting lost in all this with the hits and stuff. We did not want him to DH. We felt like we needed to get him on the field somewhere. As we went through the fall, we decided he’s a good athlete, we’ve got to teach him to play first base. We know what an important position that is, and we just told him, ‘This is probably where we’re going to play you, so learn to play this position well.’ And he has.”

It’s easy to overlook Ackley’s athleticism because of his quick bat and his position, but one reason Ackley was able to sustain his 28-game hitting streak from Feb. 28-April 14 was his above-average speed, which contributed to his team-high 11 steals in 14 attempts. He always ran hard up the line and beat out many infield hits.

Ackley led the nation in batting average for much of the season, and he carried a .442 average into the championship game of the ACC tournament on May 27. But Ackley fell into a deep slump for the first few weeks of the postseason, and his average actually dipped below .400 for the first time since March 9 during a June 20 game in Omaha.

“I don’t think I was pressing at all; I’ve been doing the same things I was always doing,” Ackley said of the slump. “I haven’t tried to do too much with a ball or a pitch or anything, so I don’t think pressing’s the right word for it.”

Slump Buster

Fox agreed that the slump was more of a mechanical nature than a mental one. He said Ackley’s “flat demeanor” never changed, but he started to have trouble when pitchers began busting him inside. The coaches worked on helping Ackley get the bat head out and turn on some balls, but once he started doing that, pitchers would exploit him outside.

Finally, in that June 20 game against Rice, Fox dropped Ackley from his No. 3 hole to the No. 7 spot. Ackley responded with two hits, including a huge three-run homer in the seventh inning that broke open a close game and propelled the Tar Heels to a 6-1 victory. It was his first home run since May 11, but it wouldn’t be his last; Ackley went deep again in a 7-4 win against the Owls the next day, helping put the Tar Heels into the CWS Finals.

Fox knew Ackley’s talent meant it was only a matter of time before he snapped out of his slump. Appropriately, Fox’ favorite Ackley story describes some on-field exploits.

“He hit a home run, it’s been reported, he cracked the bat when he hit it,” Fox said. “Against UNC Wilmington, he hit a three-run homer, it sounded funny when it came off the bat, but it went out there at (UNC’s) Boshamer (Stadium).

“He’s not much of a jokester, he’s all business. Dusty, he’s a neat kid. He’s very quiet, and very unassuming, doesn’t say a whole lot, and I think people like that.”