State of the Hogs: Fletcher continues power surge in Omaha

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Arkansas infielder Hunter Wilson, left, puts a Hog hat on the head of outfielder Dominic Fletcher after Fletcher hit a home run during the fourth inning of a College World Series game against Texas Tech on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas infielder Hunter Wilson, left, puts a Hog hat on the head of outfielder Dominic Fletcher after Fletcher hit a home run during the fourth inning of a College World Series game against Texas Tech on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.

Dominic Fletcher opened the season crushing bombs. The first weekend of January practice was a clinic for the sophomore center fielder. He hit four homers against the Arkansas aces.

So what happened when the season began? There were only strikeouts and weak pop outs. Fletcher hit just .186 through the first 12 games, finally going to the bench for the final game of the Southern Cal series.

Oh, how things have changed. Fletcher became the first ever college player to go 4-for-4 with 4 RBI in a College World Series game played at TD Ameritrade Park, which opened in 2011. His RBI were enough to equal Texas Tech's run production in the Razorbacks' 7-4 win.

The Hogs are one victory short of the finals. They will get either Florida or Texas Tech on Friday.

Fletcher's explosion might have been predictable. He was incredible in live batting practice since arriving in Omaha. He hit some mammoth blows in practice Saturday at Creighton, then put on a show Monday at Bellevue East High School.

There was an exchange in practice Monday between Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and Fletcher. The 5-11 center fielder hit one in the sweet spot that was headed to center field. Van Horn said, “That one is going to hit the scoreboard.”

That's notable in itself.

As it sailed higher and higher, Fletcher interjected, “No, that's going over the scoreboard.”

Indeed, it did. Fletcher repeated it on the next pitch. Both were in the 400-foot range when they sailed over the scoreboard.

Fletcher repeated the blast to lead off the fourth. Estimates put the homer at 415 feet.

“It's about as far as I can hit one, probably as far as I've ever hit one,” Fletcher said. “But I think I tried to bunt on a 0-1 pitch, bunted it foul, and then was trying to battle and put a ball in play somewhere.

“Fouled off a couple of pitches and was seeing it well, and he left a fastball right over the middle of the plate.”

It was Fletcher's ninth homer of the season. And, Van Horn agreed that it's about as far as he's seen Fletcher hit one in a game – that stayed fair. Fletcher has been out front on some huge blasts that hooked foul in Baum Stadium.

“What I saw from him at the beginning of the spring is he was trying to hit the ball 500 feet,” Van Horn said. “And I will tell you the very first weekend in three-game series I bet he hit seven balls .390 foul, and then he didn't do anything.

“He hit one - we have a shed down there (in foul ground) they store everything, he hit it over that. He was pulling off, trying to do too much. We go to California. All his family and friends, doesn't get any better.”

Van Horn did sit him for the finale against USC, probably no fun for the Cypress, Calif., product. But Van Horn did use him as a pinch-hitter in the final inning for a walk-off hit.

“Then he slowly climbs out of it, a little here, little there, and down the stretch, last 45 days, he's been pretty good," Van Horn said.

“Now, he'll have a game where it doesn't look good and he'll have a game like today and he'll hit three balls on the screws or four. When you asked him if he's ever hit the ball that far, I've seen him hit many balls that far, but maybe not fair. I think that's what the chuckle was.

“He did. He's relaxed. He realizes he doesn't have to do it all by himself. He doesn't have to hit 20 home runs as a sophomore. Just hit. He's gone from .190 to (over .300)."

Fletcher hit .325 in the SEC and brought a .282 average into the CWS.

Fletcher said the key was to just relax. It helped that there have been other Hogs in hot streaks when Fletcher was struggling. He said there were only minor tweaks in his swing, but mainly the thought was to wait a little more.

“You know, just sticking with the approach,” he said. “Not trying to do too much. Staying back. Just a couple different things in my swing. But mostly just being relaxed up there and not getting too jumpy not trying to do too much.”

Jared Gates has had a similar late-season surge. He hit a solo homer in the second inning to help the Hogs pad an early lead. He's come back strong after a hamstring injury put him on the bench for several weeks.

Van Horn made a decision to insert Gates as the every-day first baseman at the SEC Tournament. The decision has paid big dividends with a hot June.

“I talked about it a few times, down the stretch here, because obviously he's been in the lineup, and if you start at the beginning of the season, Jared was our starting first baseman,” Van Horn said.

“And then he pulls a hamstring. He's in and out of the lineup. We start platooning over there. And it's just not going good for him. But he started swinging the bat really well in batting practice I'd say mid-April. Really wasn't going into the game. Still splitting them a little bit. Once we got to the SEC Tournament, that's when I had a talk with him. I said, '...You don't have to worry about checking the lineup every day; I'm going to play you the rest of the year.'

“And he's just kind of kept going. He's done well. So he's been - I think I said this the other day, he lengthens our lineup with a threat of driving a run in or hitting a home run, and he's just been a tough out against right- and left-handed pitching.”

Not only did the Hogs crush a couple of pitches, they got a break in the first inning when Tech's center fielder Cody Farhat and right fielder Gabe Holt collided on a Fletcher pop up. It was scored a two-run double. Tech coach Tim Tadlock took the blame, noting he changed both player's position's late in the season.

"I mean, we made that change, game 48,” he said. “We put a guy at second base that had played right field. Put a guy that played right field at second base. And really hadn't bit us up to this point. Both of them played really well.

“I think they were both trying to make a play as far as I don't think Gabe heard Cody. I think if he does, he lets him catch it. But that's on me. Really that's a deal where maybe we need to do some more outfield communication. That's something that you can do and it's something that's fundamental. When you break down fundamentally, that's on the coaches.”

Van Horn knew it was a break.

“We feel fortunate to get out of there,” Van Horn said. “At this time of the year we always talk about you have to be a little bit lucky. In the first inning we had two players run into each other; cost them two runs. But we set that inning up pretty good and three and four-hole didn't make contact. Then we got a big break there.

“Again, you gotta have some things go your way. We had a couple of things go on your way. Then we swung the bats pretty well after that and got a couple of big hits with two outs, couple of home runs to keep adding to that lead and just pretty good job up and down our lineup.”

Fletcher and Gates didn't need any luck. They didn't get much early in the year, though. It's going right for Arkansas now.

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