Hard Work Pays Off for Clemente Inclan

The third baseman is making significant strides in his fourth year at UNC

For three years, Clemente Inclan watched and waited, working toward an opportunity that was never guaranteed to come.

The No. 18 third baseman in the Class of 2017 according to Perfect Game, Inclan projected as a potential middle-of-the-order bat upon arriving at North Carolina. But despite showing glimpses of his power from 2018-20, he logged only 75 at-bats, most as a pinch hitter.

Even then, he never complained. And unlike many players in his situation, he never considered transferring. Instead, he embraced his role and worked to get better, knowing he wasn’t where he needed to be as a player and that Chapel Hill was where he could reach his potential.

“I have all the resources here,” Inclan said. “The coaches are great, and I really like it here – I really like the school and I really like my teammates a lot. So, I felt like if I want to be able to be successful past (college), then this is the place that I need to be and this is where I need to get better. I’ve just gotta be honest with myself and just try to get better each day.”

Four years later, that approach is paying off.

After coming off the bench in UNC’s first eight games this season, Inclan moved into the starting lineup on March 6 at Virginia Tech. Three days later, in his 84th career at-bat, the redshirt junior hit his first home run, depositing an 0-1 fastball from Liberty’s David Erickson over the left-field wall. He then homered in all three games against Clemson, becoming the first Tar Heel to homer in four straight games since Michael Busch accomplished the feat from April 12-16, 2019.

Inclan’s power surge ultimately earned him ACC Player of the Week honors. And while neither that nor his development are things the ever-humble third baseman will ever brag about, his coaches and teammates can’t help it.

“Clem is the definition of a college player who sticks with it,” head coach Scott Forbes said. “There’s no secret recipe. He is slowing the game down more, but he is a worker. I mean, you look at his body, he’s as strong as anybody on our team. He’s the ultimate teammate. He’ll do anything for his teammates, he’s always got a positive attitude. And he’s getting rewarded for it.

“These are the types of kids who really make coaching gratifying because it’s easy to coach a guy who it’s easy for. Clem, it’s just work. He has worked to make himself a more powerful hitter and become a better overall hitter.”

Ever since he arrived in Chapel Hill, assistant coach Jesse Wierzbicki said Inclan has probably been the hardest worker on the team. He fields every ground ball with intent. He lifts every weight with a purpose. And he takes every swing with the goal of making it a good one.

Watching him prepare in such a way day after day, week after week, year after year, Wierzbicki said he’s seen Inclan’s confidence rise. It’s also been boosted by some success in big moments – including two pinch-hit RBI singles at Miami as a freshman in 2018, a game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth of an 11-inning win over Boston College in 2019 and a walk-off double against Purdue last season, just to name a few.

At the same time, Wierzbicki said Inclan often put too much pressure on himself in his first three seasons. That hasn’t been nearly as much an issue this year.

“He’s just trying to get in there and enjoy himself,” Wierzbicki said. “I can see him in the box every now and then kind of – not panic, but you can tell the heart is beating probably a little too fast. And I can see him visibly step out and try to calm himself down. I think that’s the biggest jump that Clem has made since he was younger is now he recognizes that when things are getting a little bit fast, he knows how to slow them down a little bit, and that’s really helped him just relax in the box and it’s helped him to relax at third base.”

As far as Inclan sees it, there’s no reason to worry about what he can’t control.

“This is my senior year here, and I’m thankful to be on the field each day,” he said. “I’m just trying to trust my process and what I’m doing before the at-bat and just how I’m approaching the game. I think that’s very calming. And knowing that if I put in the work and trust my process, and whatever happens, happens, that’s pretty reassuring that I did everything I could do.”

Leaders such as Kyle Datres and Ike Freeman helped teach Inclan the importance of positivity and consistency in his first two seasons. But perhaps no one rubbed off on him more than Busch, whose constant calmness was worth aspiring to.

At no point in Busch’s exceptional sophomore and junior seasons was that trait more on display than in May 2019, when he went 3-for-24 over seven games. The eventual first-round MLB Draft pick was never fazed during that stretch. And that impressed Inclan immensely.

“There was zero change in his mentality and his attitude,” Inclan said. “He wasn’t riding the rollercoaster of emotions. You just kind of knew that he was going to start hitting again because he was keeping it even keel and just trusting his process. I think that was something cool to see from a guy who there was a lot of expectations out of.”

That wasn’t the first time Inclan gained some insight into Busch’s approach.

Earlier that year, Wierzbicki was leaving Boshamer Stadium one evening when he walked through the batting cage and saw Busch and Inclan hitting off the pitching machine. In UNC’s game a day earlier, Inclan got down in the count in one at-bat and ultimately got out on weak contact, so Wierzbicki approached him to discuss the sequence. As it turned out, Busch ended up doing a lot of the talking, explaining to Inclan his thinking during his at-bats.

“When a pitcher makes that good of a pitch 0-0, in my head, I’m thinking, ‘Good job right there. Good job for taking that pitch,’” Wierzbicki recalled Busch saying ahead of the 2019 MLB Draft. “Because I can’t hit that pitch anyway and that was a great pitch by the pitcher. But I know he can’t throw that pitch again. And if he throws it twice, I know he can’t do it three times. And that’s how I always stay confident in the box.’”

Inclan said Busch’s advice helped him understand how Busch always stayed so composed. It also sticks with Inclan two years later.

“I think that’s helped me with trying to hit the fastball,” he said. “When I go up to the plate, I’m trying to get the best pitch that I can hit, and I think that’s exactly what (Busch) was saying – to not just try to hit the ball but try to get a good pitch and get your best swing off. And I think that’s the best thing, just being ready for when that pitch comes because you know it’s going to come at some point.”

Much like his recent success.

For three years, redshirt junior pitcher Joey Lancellotti also watched and waited, knowing the hitter he saw crush balls in practice and deliver as a pinch hitter in games would make a splash. That and Inclan’s reputation as a clubhouse favorite made his outburst that much more special.

“It’s the coolest thing ever because he’s one of the best teammates you could ever ask for,” Lancellotti said. “He picks everyone up, is the nicest kid ever. He’s always been someone who has kind of taken advantage of his chances, has always been a great pinch hitter … You always saw it in him, and now seeing him thrive four years later is just the coolest thing ever. He’s someone who everyone is going to root for.”

By no means is Inclan a finished product, and that’s shown as he’s gone hitless in four games since being named ACC Player of the Week. But according to Wierzbicki, Inclan is learning to trust his approach and react at the plate. And as always, he’s working to be the best he can be.

“He works with the same intensity every single day he comes down here,” Wierzbicki said. “That’s what you want. And you hope your really, really good players do that because then it’s really easy for everybody else to kind of follow. Clem has done it. Obviously, he hasn’t been our best player the past three years, but he’s still brought that type of intensity and work ethic and he’s just turned himself into a dang good player. It’s fun to watch a kid go through that transformation, and it couldn’t happen to a better kid.”