Stick with the process. That’s been the mantra that has carried Carolina baseball to six of the last eight College World Series under Mike Fox. It’s been the modus operandi for winning seasons, like last year’s school-record 59 wins against just 12 losses, and during struggles, like the team’s recent six-game losing streak. Stick with the process.
No single Tar Heel has lived out that mantra quite like Tom Zengel, a senior whose career arc has been unusual but remarkable over the course of three and a half years.
Zengel was recruited as a big bat out of Highbridge, New Jersey. Perfect Game rated him as the fourth-best high school senior in his talent-rich state, an area of the country that Fox and his staff have recruited well. During his freshman season in 2011, he got a chance to display that hitting acumen as he made 33 starts in 48 games played –primarily appearing as the designated hitter or in the outfield– and hit. 204. Seven of his 23 hits went for extra bases. A good summer in the Coastal Plain League set him up for 2012, when he split time at designated hitter with Brian Holberton. Last season, then-freshman Landon Lassiter was the everyday DH, and Zengel was limited to just 17 appearances off the bench. Across his first three seasons, Zengel went from 113 at-bats to 91 to 14. Not the typical college baseball career.
But then, Zengel is not the typical college baseball player. Throughout last year’s College World Series run, many Tar Heels would point to Zengel as one of the most valuable members of the clubhouse and a great teammate. How could a guy who was barely playing have such an impact? “I never really worried about what I was doing the last couple years,” he said. “I kind of just worried about how the team was doing, and I just try to work hard and do whatever I can do to help our team. Whatever needs to be done, I try to do.”
The agreeable Zengel brought his workmanlike attitude to the ballpark every day. Whether he played or not, he was going to be ready. On the field or off of it, he supported his teammates. “Zengel’s greatest attribute is just his attitude,” said former Tar Heel Chris Munnelly. “He has such a great attitude every day that he brings to the table and he just kept grinding it out every year. He is a great clubhouse guy, but he’s also a good talent, and I think he was just kind of hidden the last couple years by how much talent that we had in front of him, maybe, and he was just lower on the depth chart.”
It’s hard to argue with the talent Zengel had ahead of him: Lassiter was a Freshman All-America last year, hitting .358 with an on base percentage of nearly .500. Holberton became the Tar Heels’ everyday catcher late in 2013 and was instrumental in last season’s College World Series run. Meanwhile, Zengel was the great ‘clubhouse guy.’ “I was never frustrated by it,” he said. “We were always winning, and that’s what I care about the most. So, I just tried to continue to work hard and do the best I could whenever I got a chance to be in there.”
But in 2014, with Lassiter stepping in at third base due to Colin Moran’s departure and Holberton now in the Houston Astros organization, the opportunity arose again for Zengel at designated hitter. Entering this weekend, he has played in 20 of the Tar Heels’ 28 games, hitting a team-best .346 and with 15 runs driven in. “I knew I was always capable of it,” he said of his early-season success. “I just tried to keep working hard and getting better, and work hard in the weigh room with Coach (Greg) Gatz, and this year I’ve just been swinging the bat well, and hopefully we continue to play well and keep winning.”
Whereas in the recent past he had primarily been a pinch-hit option against right-handed pitchers, the left-handed hitting Zengel is now seeing the ball well out of the hands of southpaws as well. He’s no longer just a guy who’s going to get the occasional pinch-hit opportunity, but a reliable bat regardless of the matchup.“He’s done a great job of understanding what he can handle, what he can drive,” Tar Heel hitting coach Scott Jackson said. “The experience in there, understanding how you’re going to be pitched in big spots, is something that we don’t have a whole lot of in our lineup.”
On Tuesday, the Tar Heels were nursing a two-run lead over UNC-Wilmington in the eighth inning when Zengel strode to the plate with the bases loaded. He slapped the first pitch he saw from Seahawks righty Jared Gesell down the right field line for a three-run double. “I just think I hit it in the right spot,” he said afterward. “I just go up there and try to drive the ball. I’m not trying to get up there and just put it in play, because I don’t run real well, so I try to hit it hard.”
Jackson often talks to his players about taking advantage of the opportunity to drive in runners, leaving the on-deck circle ready to hit. “It’s one thing to talk about it, and it’s one thing to say this is what you need to look for, but it’s a whole other thing to step up there and do it,” Jackson said. “He did it [Tuesday] night. He’s had some big hits for us during the year, and it’s been exactly what we need: somebody in the middle of the order that has that approach that can help us drive in runs.”
And while the Diamond Heels will take runs anyway they can get them (particularly coming out of the recent fallow stretch), there is something special about seeing Zengel find success. “Anytime somebody doesn’t play as much as they want for two years and stays with the process and doesn’t complain and still does the right thing and helps his team in any way he can, and then when he finally gets in there and he’s successful, it makes it that much better,” said fellow senior Parks Jordan. “The team loves it and personally, I love it too. I can’t get enough of it.”
Munnelly, who graduated in 2013, said there also may be a bit of sentimentality in Zengel’s motivations this year, a ‘senior factor,’ if you will. “When you know it might be your last year playing baseball –it was something I felt last year, too– you want to take full advantage of that last shining moment that you might have, and I think that’s the thing with Zengel. He’s just enjoying himself playing baseball, and he’s finally got his opportunity and he’s taken hold of it.”
More than anything, however, Zengel’s willingness to maintain a good attitude, stay patient and trust his coaching staff and teammates has allowed him to step in to the box and be successful. Tar Heel head coach Mike Fox said Zengel’s perseverance has been exemplary. “He’s probably the most well-liked player on our team,” Fox said. “Just the fact that he comes in here to work, it’s amazing to me. He’s one of the first ones in there hitting, and he’s a senior, he’s going to graduate, and he hadn’t played the last two years and he just kind of stays with it.”
But even as he’s playing well as an individual, Zengel is much more likely to steer the conversation back to his team’s success. “Coach talks about it with us every day,” he said. “Stick with the process, even when we’re winning. I think if we continue to stick with the process, it’s going to take us to where we want to be, because we know we’re doing everything right. We know we’re working hard, going to class, doing everything right, and it’s going to pay off at the end.”
That sounds like a winning formula, not just for the team, but for the individual as well. In 2014, Tom Zengel continues to stick with the process, and not only is his devotion to that process helping the Tar Heels on the field; he’s become a role model for his younger teammates. “It’s a great example for all his teammates, and for me too, which is don’t ever give up,” Fox said. “Don’t ever give up on a kid.”