CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - After North Carolina beat Louisville in 10 innings on Saturday, Tar Heels coach Mike Fox recounted a key moment in the game - when Louisville junior outfielder Corey Ray came to the plate to lead off the 10th. After a battle with UNC reliever A.J. Bogucki, Ray smoked a 93 mph fastball on a line to center field - where it was caught.
"We got a break there from Corey Ray - we're just challenging him on 3-2, just praying that he hits it at somebody - and not somebody on Ehringhaus," Fox said, referring to the dormitory that sits a couple hundred feet behind the center-field fence.
It was a testament to the respect Ray commands from opponents. It's not like that at-bat occurred with the bases loaded; it was the leadoff man in the inning. Yet Fox identified it as a key moment of the game, because everyone knows that once Ray gets on base, Louisville's high-powered offense is tough to stop. And Ray might square up more hard line drives than any player in college baseball.
Ray hit one laser after another in three straight games in Chapel Hill, and he played a big part in helping Louisville win the road series. He ripped a hard line drive single to center to start the weekend on Friday night, then hit three more balls hard that were caught. On Saturday he had two more crisp singles, and then that rocket that was caught in the 10th. He had three hits and an intentional walk on Sunday, when he doubled to left-center on a changeup, drilled a two-run single the other way through the left side of the infield, and pulled a fastball to right field for another RBI single. That's the other thing about Ray - he hits the ball hard from line to line, so you can't improve your chances with a shift.
Ray has worked hard to develop that all-fields approach, which goes hand-in-hand with his improved ability to handle offspeed stuff. Scouts used to question the lefthanded-hitting Ray's ability to deal with lefthanded breaking balls, but he has shown more discipline this year, and the proof is in his strikeout rate. As a sophomore, Ray struck out in 20 percent of his plate appearances (once every 4.95 trips). This year, he has struck out in just 13 percent of his PAs (once every 7.68 trips).
"I think I trust myself more, and when you trust yourself, you can let the ball get deep and that allows you to spit on a breaking ball or a changeup down and away," Ray said. "Whereas last year or my freshman year, I'm trying to pull everything because I'm trying to hit velo - everybody wants to hit the fastball. That means I'm swinging at the breaking ball in the dirt because I'm not seeing it deep. So I think this year I've improved at seeing the ball deeper … I know how to hit the ball the other way with authority, and I'll always be able to pull the ball, I've always been able to pull the ball. I think it goes back to trusting myself."
Ray has also improved his walk rate - he already has more walks (25) than he had last season (24). And his power numbers have gone up - he has 13 home runs (two more than he hit last year) and has matched last year's doubles total (15) in 17 fewer games. Overall, Ray is hitting .322/.391/.595 with a team-best 54 RBIs - and he's doing it out of the leadoff spot.
"I love it," Ray said of his move from the No. 3 hole last year to the top of the order this year. "I think the baserunning, there's more opportunities to steal. But I just love leading off and the pressure that it brings. Obviously you get more at-bats leading off, and I always like that as a hitter. I think it's just me, it's what makes me tick, leading off a game."
Over the last two years, Ray has blossomed into one of the nation's most prolific basestealers. He stole just four bases in 43 games as a freshman, but he made a conscious effort to be more aggressive on the basepaths as a sophomore last year, when he stole 34 bags in 41 attempts, ranking 11th nationally. This year he already has 35 steals in 41 tries, ranking fourth in the nation in stolen bases while improving his success rate and his frequency.
Ray's above-average speed and willingness to put it to use makes him as electrifying as his incredible bat speed.
"I think me bringing pressure on the bases makes everyone around me in the lineup better," Ray said. "Because they're worried about me, so they're trying to be quick to the plate, so the breaking ball isn't as sharp and the fastball isn't as fast, and they don't locate as good as they would if they were not worried about me. Just trying to get myself into scoring position, to make the job easier for the hitters behind me."
The essence of Corey Ray is all about making his team better, by any means necessary. He has a tendency to rise to the occasion when the moment is biggest. That's not a coincidence. That's just how he's wired.
"Corey's greatest strength, and you guys saw it (Sunday), is when the game's on the line, he gives you the best at-bat," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "And the at-bat of the game was the bases-loaded, back-side hit. If there's nobody on and we're up four or five runs, you might not get that hit. But when he locks in, we talk about his home runs all the time, his extra-base hits, they're always when we're losing or the score is tied. He's at his best when we need him to be. We don't get credit for teaching him that; that's star quality right there, that's star power. He doesn't feast. When we're up 8-0, he's terrible. Really, I mean, it's not his strength - he never pads his stats, and that's why he hits .320, .330, because he doesn't gobble up those hits when we're up big. But when the game is on the line, he's the guy you want at the plate."
Ray might have the best all-around stats in college baseball, when you factor in the combination of speed and power. And few players have less interest in the numbers than he does.
"Just doing whatever I have to do for my team to win. I could care less about hitting .400 or .350 or whatever it is - I don't even know what I'm hitting," Ray said. "If my team needs a hit, I'm trying to get a hit. If my team needs a ground ball to the shortstop to score a run, that's what I'll do. If you need me to bunt, that's what I'll do. It's about winning. I could care less about numbers. When I'm focused and I'm locked in, I think my best is better than anybody's best that I face. So it's just having that confidence and going out there and trying to perform."
Ray's confidence and devotion to his team also comes across when he talks about his defense. He's played mostly at the outfield corners for most of his career, but this year he has also seen plenty of time in center field, where he usually starts games now before sometimes moving to left late in the game to help the Cardinals put their best defense on the field. Most scouts think Ray profiles best in left. Ray doesn't care where he plays at the next level, but he admitted to being "puzzled" that some scouts don't think he can stick in center field.
"I'm comfortable at all three. That was a big point for me coming into this year, to be able to defend in left, right or center, wherever coach may put me," Ray said. "I think I'll be a center fielder - it's the easiest position, so I don't understand why people question whether or not I can play center. You see the ball the whole time, you don't have to worry about the tail toward the line when a lefty or righty is hitting. It's more ground to cover, so you can make a mistake, but you're fast so you can go and get it. "But I'm trying to be an elite defender at all three, to bring versatility to my team so other people can get in the lineup and play where they need to play."
By now it should be pretty clear that Ray is as thoughtful and charismatic off the field as he is dynamic on the field. He plays with passion and energy, he smiles a lot, and his magnetic personality is contagious.
"He does what Corey does, just loves the game, loves his teammates, just plays with a lot of energy and enthusiasm," McDonnell said. "You see his versatility, he can play all three outfield spots. He does it all. As a coach, it's fun to watch. I'm enjoying it, really enjoying it."