Matt Jones has been the online sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette since 2010. He is also a feature writer for Hawgs Illustrated magazine and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in journalism.
Hogs trade hits for hits by pitch
Arkansas leads SEC with 12 HBPs
Arkansas left fielder Joe Serrano smiles as he scores a run after hitting an RBI double to break a 3-3 tie during the seventh inning Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, against Appalachian State at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE If the first weekend was any indication, opposing pitchers will have to be disciplined to get Arkansas out at the plate this season.
Appalachian State pitchers issued 28 free passes to Razorbacks batters in their three-game series. Arkansas showed good poise with as many walks as strikeouts (16), but the story of the series was the number of hit batters.
The Razorbacks were hit by 12 pitches in the three games, including six in the finale Sunday. By comparison, Arkansas was hit by a pitch only 36 times all of last season.
Head coach Dave Van Horn said the increased number of hit batters on opening weekend is the result of a renewed philosophy at the plate shared by first-year hitting coach Tony Vitello.
"We don't want you to get hurt but you need to stand in there and take it, especially when you're behind in the count or we're behind in the game and we need runners," Van Horn said. "We talked about it before the season started and I think Coach Vitello has mentioned it a few times, it's about being able to touch home plate. It's not about your batting average, it's about scoring runs and on-base percentage."
Arkansas scored 27 runs in the opening series. The Razorbacks batted .297 and recorded double-digit hit totals in the first two games.
But Arkansas struggled Sunday, recording just three hits - one in the first inning and two in the seventh. Each hit in the finale scored a runner, but five of the team's runs came playing small ball.
The Razorbacks scored twice on sacrifice flies and once on a fielder's choice, once on a bases-loaded walk and once when a batter was hit with the bases loaded.
"Last year we kind of struggled getting on base by hit by pitches or walks," outfielder Joe Serrano said. "This year we've kind of emphasized it a little bit more. Instead of ducking out of the way of balls, just try to wear them for the team.
"I'll wear one any day of the week to get on base."
The Razorbacks' leadoff hitter Andrew Benintendi embodied the approach at the plate, reaching base seven times without a base hit in the series. The freshman was hit by three pitches and drew four walks.
"Sometimes the hits aren't falling and you'll do anything to get on base," Benintendi said. "We've been stressing it a lot in practice, holding your ground. Things like that will help you win."
Despite a .000 batting average in six official at-bats, Benintendi has a .538 on-base percentage and has scored four runs.
"I just want him to be a good lead-off man, work counts and score runs," Van Horn said. "He did a tremendous job of that."
Arkansas' players said they get a reward for being hit by pitch in their lockers after games, declining to mention what it was but assuring it wasn't "anything bad."
Van Horn said he doesn't expect any more weekends with such a high hit by pitch count, noting games like Sunday's come along once every decade or more and opposing pitching will get stronger as the season goes along. But Van Horn does expect his hitters to be tougher outs than a year ago when the team scored three or fewer runs in more than half its games.
"I just think we grind out our at-bats a lot better," Van Horn said, "and that's what we need to do with this lineup.
"You've got to win different ways....When you get three hits and score eight runs, you'll take it."