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April 14, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. - There are probably more theories about how to hit a moving baseball than there are blades of grass in a stadium.
But Colin Moran, a freshman at North Carolina, uses an approach that strips everything to its essence.
"I just try to hit the ball into the gaps, hit the ball hard and hopefully they don't catch it," he said. "I think I have a pretty decent idea when I go up to the plate. I try not to get myself out."
It's impossible to argue with the results so far. As the Tar Heels head into a weekend series at NC State, Moran is seventh in the ACC with a .372 batting average and leads the league with 48 RBIs.
"I was hoping to contribute and help the team win in any way," Moran said. "I guess you could say I'm surprised just because everything is new and I didn't know much."
One thing that he found was an atmosphere that was "easy-going but real competitive, really hard-working. This is the hardest-working team I've ever been on and it sort of rubs off on you."
It rubbed off to the extent that Moran's contributions have been significant. He has helped UNC to a 30-5 overall record, a No. 5 ranking in the latest USAToday/ESPN coaches' poll and a 12-3 mark in the ACC's Coastal Division.
Tar Heels coach Mike Fox said Moran has exceeded expectations in a league that is traditionally tough on freshmen. He showed talent during practice in the fall, but Fox wasn't sure how that would translate into the season.
"I kind of describe him as a throwback," Fox said. "He comes out every day, he never says a word and he just goes to work. He concentrates at a very high level at all times; he never takes a day off in practice or on a ground ball or on a swing.
"He just does it all at full speed and that's a great trait to have. He pays attention, he really knows the game and is probably more advanced than a lot of freshmen that I've seen."
As for Moran's hitting, Fox said he has a good, flat swing and really looks at each pitch.
"He knows the difference between a ball and a strike at this level and he rarely swings at bad pitches," Fox explained.
There's one aspect of Moran's hitting that causes Fox to shake his head and say "wow." Twenty-six of his RBIs - more than half his total - have come with two outs.
"He doesn't strike out much so he's usually going to move the ball and he's been able to find some holes," Fox said. "He's had some big hits at the end of games for us and he hits righties and lefties about the same, (so) he's got the whole package."
People get so caught up in Moran's hitting that they overlook his defense. At 6-3, 180 pounds, he has a good frame for a third baseman and he has settled nicely into the position where the ball gets to the fielder in a hurry off a metal bat.
"I feel like I'm doing all right and probably have made the plays that I'm supposed to make," he said, "but I can definitely improve. Hard work is the only secret, just getting as many reps as you can so you get used to the speed of the game."
The prospect of a freshman playing third base made Fox nervous.
"I think it's probably the hardest position to play as a freshman in college, in my opinion," he said. "We just didn't know in the fall; we saw glimpses that he could make plays. He's always had a very good, solid, accurate arm, but it was his footwork and a little bit of reaction time that we were concerned about. The more he's played, the better he's gotten."
You might assume Moran was destined to play at North Carolina. His brother, Brian, pitched there and his uncle, B.J. Surhoff, was the college player of the year at UNC before embarking on a long career in the major leagues.
But it wasn't that cut-and-dried. Moran was an excellent player at Iona Prep School in Rye, N.Y., where he was a one-sport athlete.
"I tried to play other sports but I wasn't very good," he said. "I figured baseball was the best bet."
Moran considered Virginia Tech and Maryland and had offers from a number of mid-major schools. Carolina got in late in the recruiting process and he was one of the last players signed for this season's class.
Having followed his brother's college career closely and watched the Tar Heels play in the College World Series, Moran's decision wasn't difficult when the offer came.
"I got to watch pretty much his whole career here and see how the program runs itself day in and day out," he said. "I watched players like Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager (both high draft picks by Seattle), so it was pretty hard to turn down."
Brian Moran was drafted after his junior year by Seattle and plays with the Mariners' Double-A team in Jackson, Tenn. The brothers are in touch with each other every day by phone or text message.
Colin Moran said Surhoff has given him advice over the years but "he doesn't really try to get too involved; he just lets me do my own thing."
Still, Fox believes the way the family has been immersed in baseball for so long has helped give Moran a solid understanding of how to play the game correctly.
Comparisons between brothers are natural, even when they play different positions. Fox said Brian Moran was also quiet, although probably with a little more sense of humor. Both came to North Carolina - Brian as a walk-on and Colin as one of the last to sign - with a goal firmly set.
"They both came in really, really wanting to prove that they could play at a high level," Fox said. "You could just see in (Brian) how badly he wanted to be good. And that's Colin - he really wants to be good and he understands what it takes to be good at this level."
As a team, North Carolina seems to be figuring out how to be good, too. The Tar Heels were picked fourth in the Coastal Division in the preseason coaches' poll. Halfway through the ACC's 30-game league schedule, they're tied for second with Georgia Tech and one game behind Virginia.
So how do they continue their early success?
"The big thing is just keep playing pretty good defense, pitching as well as we are and keep playing with a chip on our shoulder like we've got something to prove," Moran said.
As for himself, Moran just wants to keep helping the team win however he can.
"I don't really look at any of the numbers or things like that," he said. "As long as the team wins, that's all that matters."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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