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Honeycutt Homer Inches North Carolina Toward Postseason



CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina is no stranger to playing with its back against the wall at this point.

It has found itself in a rubber game in four of its eight ACC series so far, and enough of those have gone the wrong direction that it’s been clear since the start of last weekend’s series against rival North Carolina State that the Tar Heels just simply can’t afford to take on any more series losses and expect to make the NCAA Tournament.

So in that context, it’s no surprise that UNC fought back Friday against Wake Forest when its back was against the wall again to start off the weekend series with a 3-2 win.

“You start winning those one-run games, which we won two (of) at NC State, your team believes more that they’re going to win them,” said North Carolina coach Scott Forbes.

Wake Forest controlled the action early, coming out with a ton of energy and taking a 2-0 lead in the second inning. North Carolina got a run back in the third, but Demon Deacons’ righthander Rhett Lowder went into the sixth inning having largely cruised, running into trouble only in the third.

The Tar Heels needed a spark and they got one from freshman center fielder Vance Honeycutt. With one out and shortstop Danny Serretti on first base after a walk, Honeycutt reached down for a Lowder breaking ball and hit it out for a two-run home run.

“I was able to stay down and put a good swing on it,” Honeycutt said.

Honeycutt is being modest, because describing it as a “good swing” is in the running for understatement of the season. It was not only a clutch home run but a mammoth one, as the ball hit off the very top of the video board in left-center. It left the bat at 102 mph and traveled 409 feet.

In this frantic last-minute push for the postseason, Honeycutt has been as hot as any North Carolina hitter. His home run Friday was his fourth in as many games, and fifth in six games, including a home run in both of UNC’s wins last weekend against NC State. In that six-game stretch, he’s 11-for-21 with 11 RBIs.

Honeycutt has to feel like he’s played three distinct seasons already, because his freshman campaign has been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of his performance.

He started off about as hot as could be. Through UNC’s first eight games, he was hitting .440 with five home runs, one of the best starts for any freshman in the country.

From there, his performance started to drop off as the book got out on him, slowly at first but then precipitously, and after an 0-for-5 game with four strikeouts on April 15 against Georgia Tech, his batting average dropped to a season-low .243.

The coaching staff knew on some level that a slump might come. Not only is that fairly common among freshmen getting used to Division I baseball, but they saw Honeycutt struggle with velocity a bit in the fall and knew he might be susceptible once good scouting information got around.

When he was scalding hot early on, it was easy for the coaching staff to let him go with the swing he’d been using, but once the scuffling started and the strikeouts started to pile up, it was time to make some adjustments, and Honeycutt went to work with assistant coach Jesse Wierzbicki.

“Bat path,” Honeycutt says of what he focused on with Wierzbicki. “I kind of moved my hands from right behind my ear to off my back shoulder and that kind of helps me be able to come down into the fire position and get my bat in the zone longer and earlier, which I think is very important.”

Making swing adjustments at any point is a tough thing to do. It takes countless reps for a player to overcome the muscle memory associated with the swing they’ve been using. It’s even harder to make a swing adjustment in-season. It’s even harder still to make a swing adjustment in-season when you’re scuffling during games.

“What people don’t see is the work ethic, and Vance has got that, so there’s no telling how good he’s going to be (if), Lord willing, he stays healthy,” Forbes said.

Honeycutt getting hot at the right time is obviously huge for the Tar Heels and their hopes to win enough games down the stretch to be a postseason team. When he’s swinging it well, he can really help carry a lineup, as he’s done for a couple of stretches now.

But on Friday, his effort would have been for naught had it not been for the outstanding work of the pitching staff.

Righthander Max Carlson really buckled down after giving up the two runs early to give his team five solid innings, which is more length than UNC has gotten from most of its starters lately. And lefthander Shawn Rapp and righthander Davis Palermo were nails in relief, holding Wake Forest scoreless over the final four innings.

It’s a formula UNC hasn’t been able to use as much as it would like this season. Palermo has a 2.09 ERA and a .168 opponent batting average in 43 innings, but too often he’s been pushed into duty as a fireman early in games rather than as a shutdown guy at the back.

“At the end of the day, it’s still about, if you have a strength, can you get to that strength? And right now, our strength is Davis Palermo at the end of the game,” Forbes said. “We’ve had to go to him a lot in the fifth or the sixth because our starters haven’t given us length.”

In the big picture, the win keeps UNC in the mix to do enough to be an at-large team and not be in position to have to win the ACC Tournament in a couple of weeks.

With an RPI inside the top 30, the Tar Heels are fine from that standpoint. The concern is the regular season ACC win total. With a strong RPI, finishing 14-16 in the league might get it done, but going 15-15 has to be the goal.

With Friday’s win, UNC is 11-14. Winning this series and one next weekend at home against Florida State is a bare minimum requirement, and it would sure feel safer if it were to sweep one of the two series.

That means North Carolina’s back will continue to be against the wall the rest of the way, but it sure doesn’t seem to mind.

“There’s no choice, is there, right? Either you do it or you don’t, and I think that we all have confidence in ourselves, we all have confidence in each other,” Palermo said.

Dave Van Horn Photo By John Peterson Icon Sportswire Via Getty Images

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