Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double 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 Heisman Trophy.
Kjerstad, Martin heating up as conference play nears
Arkansas' Heston Kjerstad runs toward first base during a game against Western Illinois on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Taking advantage of teams with subpar pitching, Arkansas' two best hitters are back in business.
Hitting first and second in the lineup, Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad have combined to go 15-for-25 with 11 RBI in the Razorbacks' past three games against Louisiana Tech and Western Illinois.
On Tuesday, both hit a home run in No. 10 Arkansas' 8-0 victory over Western Illinois at Baum-Walker Stadium. Kjerstad went 4-for-4, was hit by a pitch and finished a double shy of hitting for the cycle. Martin finished 2-for-4 and walked once.
"It's nice to see the offense kick it into gear a little bit," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "It seems like Martin and Kjerstad are starting to heat up a little bit and are feeling better about themselves."
Kjerstad, like Martin, entered last Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech with a .250 batting average. He is 10-for-14 over the past three games, however, and has raised his batting average to .348 entering Wednesday's game against Western Illinois, the final game before Southeastern Conference play begins this weekend.
The sophomore outfielder is back to his old ways, hitting balls to all fields. Five of Kjerstad's hits the past three games have either gone up the middle or to the opposite field, including a first-inning triple to the wall in center field and a two-run home run into the left-field bullpen in the seventh inning Tuesday.
He also had a bunt single down the third-base line over the weekend.
Van Horn hinted that Kjerstad's pull home run in the season-opening win over Eastern Illinois might have hurt his swing. Over the next two weeks, Arkansas coaches noticed he tried to pull a lot of balls, which was not the case a year ago.
"It's just hitting the ball where it's pitched," Kjerstad said. "Wherever it's thrown, I've just got to take it to that part of the field."
Much of Kjerstad's success can be attributed to a change in his swing earlier this month when he heightened his leg lift to bring his swing path back into rhythm. He was batting .222 entering the second game of the Stony Brook series, but in his past seven games he is 15-for-30.
"(The leg kick) is a big part of the way I hit," Kjerstad said. "(Hitting coach Nate) Thompson talks to me about it all the time. It's just the way I time up pitches - fastballs, curveballs - and when I time them up right, my leg kick is in sync with it."
The other element to Kjerstad's improvement has been the improvement of the hitter in front of him. Martin went through a 0-for-16 slump that lasted into last Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech, but has reached base in eight of his past 13 plate appearances.
Martin's threat to steal a base has allowed Kjerstad to get more fastballs to hit. It also has forced pitchers to work more from the stretch.
“It helps for sure,” Van Horn said. “Pitchers are usually a little bit better in the windup than they are the stretch. (Kjerstad has) had a few things go his way....He couldn’t hardly hit a ball harder than the one he hit over the center fielder’s head tonight into that wind. He hit another one awfully hard, an opposite-field home run into the wind. It was good to see him get a couple of singles and see him smiling and bouncing around the dugout a little bit and seeing that average climb.
“He felt like he was struggling, but we felt like he was getting a little bit better the last week or so and starting to get some things to go his way.”
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