Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A two-time graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Baxendale leading Hogs' surge
Arkansas designated hitter Blake Baxendale heads to first after hitting a double during the second inning against Vanderbilt Saturday, April 19, 2014, at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE With a couple of swings of the bat, Blake Baxendale turned his season around.
The redshirt freshman hit a first inning grand slam and later a RBI double during a series finale win at LSU two weeks ago. Since that start Baxendale is batting .429 with 11 RBIs and five extra-base hits.
"I actually going into that game felt really confident," Baxendale said. "To get the grand slam and the double against LSU was huge for my confidence.
"That was a big point for me but also that's kind of been our turning point. Coach (Dave) Van Horn told us we had 20 games left at the beginning of that Sunday game against LSU. Since then we've been beat one time. We only have 13 games left now and we're playing like we're 6-1."
Baxendale's surge at the plate has come as a bit of a surprise for some given his 8-for-37 (.216) start to his career. But for those who have watched Arkansas' designated hitter in practice, the last two weeks haven't been too surprising.
"The one thing he's done all year long is to have a good attitude and good approach when he gets an opportunity," Arkansas assistant coach Tony Vitello said. "His eyes kind of light up when he gets in the lineup. To be honest with you, he wasn't ready at the beginning of the season to be the guy he is now, but he's gotten better gradually.
"Blake is keeping things really simple and is being a lot more aggressive at pitches he can hit instead of just swinging at anything that comes his way."
Baxendale has arguably been Arkansas' most clutch hitter since he became an every day starter. He is 11-for-26 (.423) this season with runners in scoring position.
"It's a mentality that regardless of how old you are you have to have," Vitello said. "He just wants to be in those situations."
Baxendale has had multiple hits in five of his last seven games, including a career-high three-hit performance in the Razorbacks' win over Northwestern State on Tuesday.
"Calling pitches against him you need to be really careful about where you throw the ball because he can really hurt you," Northwestern State pitching coach Chris Curry said. "I thought a couple of times, to his credit, we had him set up to finish him and get him out, and he made a great job adjusting to two-strike pitches twice on breaking balls down and away."
Curry, a former Arkansas volunteer assistant coach, has known Baxendale for several years and even gave him private catching lessons when he was younger.
"I see a boy growing into a man," Curry said. "His body is maturing. Right now he's young, but he's strong and is a physical presence in the box.
"I just see him turning into a really strong presence in their lineup."
Baxendale's presence has helped Arkansas turn the corner offensively. The Razorbacks have scored 48 runs over the last seven games and had 13 hits in each game against Northwestern State's midweek pitchers.
"The sum is greater than the parts with these guys," Vitello said. "They're kind of coming together with that pack mentality. It may not be Baxendale who gets you on a certain day, but for the most part we've got someone who will get you if he doesn't."
First baseman Eric Fisher has also become more of a presence in the lineup, hitting five home runs over his last nine games. With Baxendale and Fisher batting fifth and sixth in the order, it has taken pressure off some of the Razorbacks' more seasoned hitters.
"It's definitely a boost for me having somebody like Blake swinging a hot bat," said clean-up hitter Brian Anderson. "Then you have Eric hitting behind him. I guess you could say I really feel protected. Baxendale has been seeing the ball unbelievably.
"We've always known the potential has been there and that's what we heard whenever he was coming to college. It was, 'We have another Baxendale here.'"
Baxendale's older brother, DJ, was a three-year starting pitcher for the Razorbacks from 2010-12. The Baxendale family moved to Northwest Arkansas prior to DJ's first season, allowing Blake unprecedented access to college players.
"I used to take catching lessons from James McCann in his apartment," Baxendale said. "From the pitching side I got to pick DJ's brain as far as what he would throw in certain situations, which helped me as a hitter."
Overcoming injuries has been Baxendale's biggest obstacle at Arkansas. He was limited in practice last season because of Tommy John surgery and he didn't play competitively last summer while finishing his recovery.
Baxendale has had a series of other misfortunes on and off the field. He was the victim of a hit-and-run while riding his scooter last year and two weeks later was the driver in a car accident in which he injured his forearm and thumb. He has battled through a couple of injuries this season after twice being hit with a bat while catching.
"Being healthy has helped a lot because I'm able to take batting practice every day and get into a groove," Baxendale said. "It's hard to get into a groove if you're only in the lineup once every three days, so being in the lineup has helped me get in the groove and I've kind of stuck with it."