College Baseball: Ackley focused on regionals, not draft
By Joedy McCreary
CHAPEL HILL ó Dustin Ackley could become North Carolina’s highest draft pick since B.J. Surhoff went No. 1 more than two decades ago.
Before draft day, the first baseball and the Tar Heels hope to earn their fourth-straight trip to the College World Series.
That’s why Ackley is focused on the East Carolina Pirates, who UNC hosts on Saturday in a best-of-three super regional series.
“I just try not to think about it as much as possible (but) when that day comes, I’ll probably think about it a little bit more,” Ackley said Tuesday. “We’ve got these games and we’ve got tough competition. You’ve got to focus more on that now. You’re so focused on that, that you don’t even have time to think about what’s going on (with the draft).”
Ackley and the Tar Heels caught a break with the scheduling.
In most seasons, the draft is held during the week of the NCAA tournament’s super regional round. This year’s two-day draft begins June 9 ó the day after the College World Series field is set ó and that move helps college baseball’s final 16 teams maintain some semblance of focus for an extra week.
“That helps a little bit ó otherwise, it would be today,” North Carolina coach Mike Fox said. “That’s one less distraction for those guys.”
Distractions certainly haven’t bothered Ackley before.
Seemingly from the day he showed up on campus in 2006, Ackley has been one of the centerpieces of a team that turned College World Series trips into an every-year occurrence.
He hit .402 as a freshman and .417 last year, and entered his junior season with a school-record .409 career batting average ó 17 points better than Surhoff’s old mark.
That mark has only risen this year. He’s hitting .417 again, set another school record with his 336th career hit and was named both the ACC player of the year and one of five finalists for the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top amateur player.
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen at this level,” Fox said.
Those numbers make it a certainty that Ackley’s name will be among the first called during the draft.
Various mock drafts have him as high as No. 2 behind pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the consensus top pick out of San Diego State. Only one Tar Heel has gone that high ó pitcher Paul Shuey went second overall to Cleveland in 1992 ó since the Milwaukee Brewers took Surhoff with the top pick in 1985.
“Hopefully, what’s done is done for the draft, and hopefully, I won’t have to really do anything,” Ackley said. “It’s one of those times where I need to relax and play my own game.”
That unassuming approach seems to extend well off the baseball field, too.
His roommate, infielder/outfielder Garrett Gore, said he unsuccessfully tried to needle some cockiness out of him after North Carolina’s regional final victory against Kansas. Gore homered in the third inning of that game, only to see Ackley go deep three innings later.
“I told him the other day, ‘Every time I have a good game, you rain on my parade,”‘ Gore said with a laugh. “I hit a home run, he comes up and hits a home run. That’s just how it is. And I love it because he’s such a good person, and it’s good to see people like that be rewarded. He’s a special human, and I don’t think he knows it.
“The thing about it that I love so much is, he’s so humble,” he added. “He doesn’t talk about it. He never brags.”
In all likelihood, Ackley’s final home games will come this weekend during the Tar Heels’ super regional series against East Carolina. He can think of no better way to wrap things up than by finally winning it all in Omaha.
They’ve been there ó and ultimately fallen short ó so many times. His freshman season ended with North Carolina being knocked out by Oregon State in the championship round for the second consecutive year. The Tar Heels went 3-2 in the CWS last year before they were eliminated by eventual champion Fresno State.
The seniors “came close twice and were pretty close the other time, so I think it’s definitely going to be something that I want to do for them ó and especially for the other guys, too,” Ackley said. “To go there for a fourth year and not win it, it wouldn’t be bad to go there four years in a row, but to not win it at any point would be kind of bad.”