College Sports

5 keys to the Charlotte 49ers’ early baseball success

Charlotte’s Loren Hibbs is in his 25th season as the 49ers’ baseball coach. His team is off to its best start since 2013.
Charlotte’s Loren Hibbs is in his 25th season as the 49ers’ baseball coach. His team is off to its best start since 2013. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte 49ers’ baseball team came close before.

Just eight days before Wednesday’s game at N.C. State, the 49ers fell just short of upsetting No.4-ranked South Carolina, losing 5-4 in Columbia. But against the Wolfpack, No. 10 in Baseball America’s Top 25 poll, Charlotte prevailed.

Freshman Zack Smith’s two-run double in the seventh inning was the difference for the 49ers in a 6-5 win, their best since defeating No. 6 North Carolina in March 2011.

Five keys to the 49ers’ success through nine games:

Resume builders

Charlotte (7-2) is off to its best start since 2013, when it also opened the season with a 7-2 record. That campaign marked the program’s last with a winning record.

However, the 49ers have positioned themselves early on to buck that trend and possibly make their first NCAA regional since 2011. WarrenNolan.com has Charlotte with the No. 1 strength of schedule and No. 3 RPI (Ratings Percentage Index).

Two-strike approach

Through Wednesday, the 49ers ranked 12th nationally with a. 344 batting average and were tied for 10th with 104 hits. Their success with two strikes has played a large part in that.

Charlotte hitters have struck out 39 times, the fewest in Conference USA. Although they struck out seven times Wednesday, nine of the 49ers’ 13 hits came with two strikes.

Pitching improvements

The 49ers’ pitching staff ranked 209th nationally with a 5.33 ERA last season. Through nine games, Charlotte has posted a 3.16 ERA, which ranked 52nd through Wednesday.

Budding bullpen

A strong performance by the 49ers’ bullpen was key against N.C. State, as five relievers combined to allow two runs over 7 1/3 innings. Relievers Matt Brooks, Jacob Craver, Jonah Patten and J.D. Prochaska haven’t allowed a run through 21 combined innings.

Staying on track

The 49ers received national attention when they opened the season with a weekend series win against West Virginia. That spotlight has grown since Wednesday.

Before Thursday’s practice, coach Loren Hibbs implored his players to maintain the same approach and warned them of the target on their backs.

“We’ve always played with an edge …” Hibbs said. “If we continue to do that and continue to work on getting better every day, then we’ve got a chance to have a really good team.”

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