Holberton batted .167 with seven RBIs over the final 15 games of the regular season.
An unexpected schedule addition, however, provided the needed spark to change his momentum at the plate. UNC announced a nonconference tilt against Florida State on May 20 – two days before the ACC Tournament started – due to weather forcing a cancellation during each program’s schedule.
Holberton laid down a sacrifice bunt in the fourth inning against the Seminoles before scoring the game-winning run on a RBI single to centerfield in the bottom of the eighth.
“I think if this game doesn’t do anything else, maybe it gets Brian Holberton going a little bit,” UNC head coach Mike Fox told reporters following his team’s 4-3 win over FSU. “That’s the first thing I thought when got that base hit.”
It was a comment lost in transcription as game stories looked ahead to the postseason instead of focusing on a glorified exhibition game. As it turns out, Fox’s crystal ball may provide for a second career later in life.
Holberton is batting .381 with 17 RBIs in 13 postseason games, including a 0-7 effort in the 18-inning ACC Tournament contest against N.C. State. The Charlotte, N.C. product has nine multi-hit games during that stretch and has bumped his average up to .417 with a team-high nine RBIs during the NCAA Tournament.
“Holbie’s always been really streaky in his career,” Fox said on Wednesday.
Holberton (.317, 12 HR) has also provided firepower with a trio of postseason homeruns. His three-run ninth-inning homerun against Clemson in the ACC Tournament tied the game at 7-7 to force extra innings. And he’s given his team early leads with a pair of two-run dingers in its last two elimination games.
All three homeruns went over the right field wall, indicating the left-hander’s power in pulling pitches.
“I think it’s just trying to stay relaxed,” Holberton said. “Just going up there with a simple approach and trying to look for a pitch to hit. If you get it, try to swing at it and hit it good.”
Holberton is more than a power bat, though. He’s a skilled bunter, as evidenced by his sac bunt to set up UNC’s final run in its 4-2 win over LSU on Tuesday, and he’s moved full-time into the catcher’s role since Matt Roberts broke a finger earlier this month.
“If you ask other coaches, they’ll tell you that you’re not supposed to have favorites, but Holbie’s a hard kid not to love,” Fox said. “The kid’s got everything you want in a player. He’s tough as nails, works hard, smart as a whip. He can go from one position to the next and doesn’t miss a beat…
“He’s been invaluable for us in more ways than one.”
Its standard operating procedure for reporters to ask players to break down key at-bats during postgame press conferences, and in most cases, the responses are short, typically noting the type of pitch and quality of the swing.
When asked about his homerun on Tuesday, Holberton provided 10 sentences of context over a 40-second answer, detailing previous pitches to Chaz Frank and Colin Moran in figuring out what pitch to expect.
“The key to Brian Holberton is that he looks at the ball,” Fox said. “That’s his best trait. He looks at the ball. And he very rarely will swing at a ball. We’ve contemplated him leading off. I really contemplated [on Tuesday] hitting him in the 2-hole just in case we needed to bunt a little bit...
“He’s very smart. If you heard him describe the homerun [on Tuesday], he thought about all of that in a matter of seconds.”
Holberton’s homerun in mammoth TD Ameritrade Park is one of only two homeruns hit in nine College Series Games thus far.
Fox talked at length following Wednesday’s practice about what Holberton doesn’t possess in his skill set. He really doesn’t have a pro position, doesn’t have a great arm and doesn’t project to hit homeruns at the next level. The junior doesn’t have a major league tool to lean on, in terms of speed, power and any other type of measurable trait.
Even so, the Houston Astros drafted Holberton in the ninth round on June 7.
“There’s a lot of people out there that think this kid’s got what it takes to maybe get to the next level,” Fox said.
Holberton’s hoping to take North Carolina to another level – the CWS championship series – before turning his attention to the future.