Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Center fielder takes lead for Razorbacks
Arkansas center fielder Tyler Spoon runs down a fly ball for an out in the first inning of a game Saturday, April 5, 2014 against South Carolina at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Tyler Spoon knows he is in Arkansas, not Alaska, but this season is taking him back to his playing days for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.
That summer of 2012, Spoon played center field and batted lead off for his Alaskan Baseball League team. Now he is doing the same for Arkansas, which opens a three-game series against Vanderbilt at 6:35 p.m. today at Baum Stadium.
Spoon, a redshirt sophomore from Van Buren, began this season playing in right field - where he started all 61 games last season - and batting cleanup, but he has adjusted to new roles on defense and offense.
“It’s the same thing I did in Alaska. I feel comfortable there,” Spoon said of leading off and playing center field. “It’s nothing new to me. I’m just doing the best I can, playing whatever role I can for the team.”
VANDERBILT AT ARKANSAS
WHEN 6:35 p.m.
WHERE Baum Stadium, Fayetteville
RECORDS Arkansas 23-15, 7-8 SEC; Vanderbilt 28-10, 7-8 SEC
Razorbacks Coach Dave Van Horn decided after 14 games to have Spoon switch places with freshman Andrew Benintendi and move from right to center field. Benintendi wasn’t doing a bad job in center field, Van Horn said, but Spoon’s experience is a plus.
“I think Tyler’s been fantastic in center,” Van Horn said. “I think he takes really good routes to the ball and gets a good read off the bat.
“He’s caught everything he’s supposed to catch, and maybe a few that he shouldn’t have. I mean, he’s made some highlight-reel catches this year.”
Three of Spoon’s catches in center field last week- two against UNLV and one against LSU - can be found easily on YouTube.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Spoon said. “It’s kind a blur really.”
Redshirt freshman catcher and designated hitter Blake Baxendale said Spoon’s uniform always has plenty of grass stains.
“He’s a dirt bag,” Baxendale said. “Anything we need him to do, he can go out and do it. It’s great to have a guy like Tyler Spoon in the lineup.”
Van Horn decided to shake up the lineup after South Carolina beat Arkansas 2-1 in the teams’ series opener two weeks ago. Spoon batted lead off, singled on the first pitch from Jack Wynkoop and scored on Brian Anderson’s single to get the Razorbacks going on their way to a 4-1 victory. Spoon added a two-run double in the second inning, then had a hit and scored a run in the third game against the Gamecocks to help Arkansas win 7-0.
Spoon, batting .273 with 3 home runs and 28 RBI, has stayed in the leadoff spot the past eight games, going 7 for 30 with 4 walks, including a three run home run against UNLV.
“He’s not your typical lead off guy,” Baxendale said. “If you throw him a pitch down the middle the first pitch of the game, he’s going to swing.”
Van Horn said Spoon has handled the lead off role well, and it’s been a plus moving Benintendi to the No. 2 spot in the order.
“I like Tyler at the top,” Van Horn said. “He’s pretty streaky, but he’s driven in some runs that second and third time through the batting order. That’s what we’ve needed.”
Spoon said he hasn’t changed his hitting approach moving from cleanup to lead off.
“I think [Van Horn] moved me there to be who I am,” he said. “I’m an aggressive hitter, so obviously I came out that first game and swung at the first pitch.
“I got a hit, and I think that got some momentum going for us. The whole team up and down the order just started hitting.”
Spoon twice was named to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s All-Arkansas team when he played at Van Buren, but he said he wasn’t heavily recruited. He planned to go to the University of Central Arkansas before impressing Van Horn at a Razorbacks camp the summer of his senior year.
“It just took playing good one time in front of Coach Van Horn, and thankfully I’m here now,” Spoon said. “I think I was five for six with two doubles and a triple. I just went off. It was one of those crazy days.”
Spoon played pitcher, catcher and the infield - everywhere but the outfield - before coming to Arkansas.
“Actually, I came here as an infielder,” he said. “I played some third base and second base. I caught some bullpens my freshman year, too. Then finally they were like, ‘OK, you can just go to the outfield.’
“Now I’m there.”
Van Horn said Spoon’s defensive skills rank high among Arkansas’ top center fielders, right along with Craig Gentry, Brett Eibner and Jacob Morris.
“Tyler doesn’t maybe have the speed of some of the center fielders we’ve had, but I think he has the instincts of all of them,” Van Horn said. “He’s got a little bit of feel. He does take charge.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t had any collisions out there. He’s very verbal. He wants to catch everything. Maybe he gets in front of some people to catch them, but I’d rather have that guy in center.”
Sports, Pages 17 on 04/18/2014