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May 15, 2013North Carolina has been one of America's elite college baseball teams over the past four months, building a stellar 46-6 overall record largely because of the team's depth.
The Diamond Heels have chugged along this spring even without the electric presence of freshman Skye Bolt, who missed 17 games after breaking the second metatarsal in his right foot on a foul tip in mid-April.
While Carolina went a highly respectable 13-4 without Bolt in the lineup, they were nearly unbeatable at 33-2 with him on the field.
Naturally, UNC's players, coaches, and fans are hopeful that his return, just in the nick of time for the home stretch, will give Carolina that edge of near-invincibility again.
Bolt returned to the UNC lineup Tuesday night for Carolina's 2-0 win over Appalachian State and the rookie couldn't have timed it much better, with the postseason looming next week and key ACC games coming up against Virginia and Florida State beforehand.
"It feels good. It's good to be back out on the field again. It's been painful sitting there and watching, but the guys have been playing regardless. But it feels good to be back," Bolt said after Tuesday's win.
Bolt entered the App State game leading the Diamond Heels with a .392 batting average (49 hits in 125 at-bats over 34 games), and on the second pitch he saw in his return to action he drove a clean hit into left field---one of just four hits Carolina got against the Mountaineers.
"I'm a little bit slower. I feel comfortable at the plate, though," Bolt said. "That's pretty much how I imagined my first game coming back. I couldn't have asked for it to go any better. It feels good to be back, and that was a good stepping stone."
"Physically I think he's fine. I think it's just getting back out there," said UNC head coach Mike Fox. "It's not like we can put him out in a basketball scrimmage and run down the court and simulate live."
"That's the first live pitching he's seen since Virginia Tech (when he broke his foot). It's a lot different taking batting practice than live. It's going to take him some time. I saw him get up there and get a base hit (in his first at-bat). He's going to be a little rusty, but his learning curve is pretty short. So he'll get back into it pretty quickly I think."
Bolt admitted there was a minor bit of trepidation before the game, but once he got into the game and starting making some plays in the outfield (he had three putouts over the course of today's ASU win), he got into a normal groove.
He didn't have to wait long, as he made the game's very first putout on a fly to right field.
"Pregame there was a little bit (of worry), absolutely. But once I stepped out on the field, and that first ball is hit to you, you kind of go back to instinct," he said. "It wasn't bad."
"It kind kind of a sigh of relief. It was good to get it off my shoulders, hit the ball to me, get moving, get the game moving, get me in the game, get me involved real quick. It kind of just put me back to the basics. It will take some time to get back there."
Bolt's most exciting play of the night was a tremendous diving catch in the fifth inning, as he laid out to snag a short liner in front of him in short right field, reminiscent of Ron Swoboda's famous grab in the 1969 World Series.
It was an athletic effort that proved to be critical in such a low-scoring pitcher's duel, but Bolt said he actually didn't take the correct angle on the ball and that's why he had to dive.
"My buddies gave me heck on that one. It was kind of a bad route. There's no 'kind of.' It was a bad route, but I was able to save it. Maybe if my foot gets back to where it is, it's a little less ugly. But regardless, it was ugly," he said.
In his return to the batter's box Bolt was one-for-three, with his early single his only hit.
He did walk later in the game, and stole second base to show that his foot is getting back up to speed.
Bolt told us that he's had an opportunity to get back into a zone hitting despite his absence from live game action, and that the biggest key for him is being patient and letting the ball come to him.
"For me, I know personally, I liked the time off (for hitting)," he said. "It kind of flushes my system. All habits are out the window. You revert back to what you were taught, to what feels natural to you."
"For me, it's a a great feeling. There's no expectations. I'm loose. Let the pitcher throw to you versus trying to go get the pitcher. It's a good feeling. You feel calm up there. You just let the game play itself out. You slow it down."
"At the plate I feel real good," Bolt continued. "I'm not jumpy as far as trying to go get the baseball. I'm letting the pitcher come to me, let the ball come to me, and then do whatever damage I can do with it."
"I'm not trying to force things at the plate. I feel comfortable. I feel relaxed. I've taken the best rounds of BP I've taken pretty much all season the past two weeks. It's been a good flush of my system, at the plate specifically."