State of the Hogs: Bombarding Benintendi

Major league scouts love Andrew Benintendi, leading the nation with 15 home runs. He's part of a surging Arkansas baseball team turning heads with an April hot streak.

Andrew Benintendi has bombarded the SEC. Now he's being "bombarded" by major league baseball scouts. The sophomore center fielder is draft eligible this summer, with still two years of eligibility.

What does all of that mean? Benintendi, 5-10 by 180, is going to have incredible leverage this summer and is likely to be a first-round draft pick.

"I do know that one team is VERY, VERY high on Andrew," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Monday after meeting with the media at an up-beat Swatter's Club.

Benintendi has a chance to be only the second SEC player to win the baseball triple crown, tops in hitting, RBI and home runs. Rafael Palmerio did it in 1984. Benintendi is tops with a .386 batting average, leads in home runs with 15 and is fifth in RBI with 46, just behind SEC leader JJ Schwarz with 49.

Traditionally, college baseball players get Monday off from practice, although most come for workouts on their own. So Van Horn gives major league scouts that day to talk to draft eligible players. It's common around college baseball. Not surprising, they have lined up to talk to Benintendi the last few weeks as the 20-year-old from Cincinnati, Ohio has scorched the SEC.

"He's been bombarded," Van Horn said. "He's talked to all of them. He'll go in the first or second round. He's told them he wants to play baseball for a very long time and is interested. But since he's still got two more seasons, he's in an incredible position to bargain. He'd still be in a high leverage spot next year.

"But if he goes that high, I want him to sign and take that money. I told Zack Cox the same thing when he was draft eligible as a sophomore. And, he did. You just don't know what is going to happen the next year and I'm happy for him. I just don't want him to worry about it right now, just keep playing. He's got a lot of bargaining power right now and they love him."

Van Horn knew Benintendi was on track for a breakout year and predicted home run power for the sweet swinging lefty with the great lower half. There were some changes late last year in his stance that showed his potential.

"We didn't like his open stance," Van Horn said. "We closed that down. And, he's been great at taking his walks. His approach is very good. But 15 home runs? I didn't think anyone would hit eight. I will say that when he was in high school I saw him hit one completely out of the park with a wood bat, way out."

Interestingly, most have pitched Benintendi away because of his great pull power. Some have played the shortstop behind second base and the second basemen into right field. Benintendi has spoiled that by slicing away pitches into left center, often with power. And, he's got the eye to stay off that pitch just off the plate.

"Alabama decided to pitch him in and they got him out a few times, then he got on those pitches and hurt them," Van Horn said. "And, he will take his walks. His bat is very quick. He can wait real deep and that makes him really tough."

That's almost a double, since Benintendi has stolen 20 out of 23 attempts. He leads the team with 34 walks, giving cleanup man Tyler Spoon lots of RBI chances. Spoon is right behind Benintendi with 40 RBI.

Mentally, Benintendi is a smooth cookie. Jim Reynolds was Benintendi's basketball coach for four years at Cincinnati suburb Madeira High School. Benintendi was the Rawlings national player of the year for baseball, but was just as good in basketball, earning Ohio Division II player of the year by the Cincinnati Enquirer as a junior.

When I talked to Reynolds last winter before Benintendi opened as the Hogs' starting center fielder as a true freshman, there was talk of tremendous poise and ability to focus under pressure. Reynolds reminded me of that 15 months later when we visited this weekend.

"He's been remarkable, but not surprising to me," Reynolds said. "The confidence, work ethic and poise under pressure are things I saw day in and day out. I watched it all these last three games. Wow!"

Reynolds was talking about tuning in on the SEC Network to watch the Hogs sweep Alabama. Benintendi was in the middle of all of it. He's getting rave reviews from the TV anaylsts.

"To me, it's a no brainer, he's outplayed the entire league and is the SEC Player of the Year," said Chris Burke, ESPN analyst and the 2001 SEC Player of the Year.

ESPN analyst Tom Hart said, "There are only a few hitters in the SEC yo have to game plan for and Benintendi leads that list."

Benintendi has been good all year, but the rest of the Hogs have jumped on for the ride, especially the bullpen. Freshman starter Keaton McKinney, named SEC pitcher of the week Monday, has been spectacular of late, too. McKinney shutout Alabama, 4-0, on two hits on Sunday. The defense has been sterling, too.

It was fun for Van Horn to take the dais at the Swatter's Club. He reminded that it was tough to stand in front of the fans one month ago after the Razorbacks struggled through March.

"What we've done in the last 45 days starts with the bullpen," he said. "Those midweek games in March, we were not pitching well."

Reminded of those remarks as he was leaving the building, Van Horn was more to the point about the bullpen pitching.

"Those were four-hour games, all of them," he said. "It made us sick to our stomach. We had never been through that in my 13 years here and really not ever during our times of winning and that goes all the way back (to junior college). We could always throw strikes. We were just sick watching those games."

Van Horn told the crowd that he didn't want to go out in public in March.

"You can't explain what was happening," he said. "You can't."

The difference is easy to explain. Relievers James Teague, Jackson Lowery, Lance Phillips and Josh Alberius are throwing strikes. Then, there is Zach Jackson to pitch twice on the weekend if needed as the closer. Jackson's stuff is electric.

Starters Trey Killian, Dominic Taccolini and McKinney have been good enough. Teague could be a fourth starter if that's needed for postseason play.

Defensively, Van Horn chortled about the .979 fielding, including .982 in SEC play.

"We are not making many mistakes and making the routine plays," Van Horn said. "Bobby Wernes is playing great defense at third. I'm not sure there are any better than him at third in the country and maybe that includes major league baseball.

"Bret McAfee is been good at short. Michael Bernal is as good as he is at short, but better than McAfee at second, so we have him there. Rick Nomura is starting to hit again, so we can rest those guys and keep them healthy. McAfee has had some injury issues, so that's important."

Van Horn said it was probably his best fielding team in his 13 seasons at Arkansas. A second baseman for one year under Norm DeBriyn, Van Horn was asked if they field better than he did. First, Van Horn wanted to know if anyone knew his stats from his one year.

"I know what they were," Van Horn said. "I made three errors and I can remember them all. One was the first ball I touched, I dropped a flip to second for a force out. The second was one that hit me in the throat and the third was in the rain when I threw a relay into the stands."

Can the Hogs, now 29-18 and an impressive 14-10 in the SEC, host in the NCAA tournament? They play host to Tennessee this weekend before closing the season at Georgia. Both teams are struggling.

"It was hard to look at the standings when we were 1-5," Van Horn said. "You know you can't catch up anytime soon. It took time.

"But we still have a lot of work to do. We can't get all happy because you can lose six straight and be right back where we were."

Again, do the Hogs have a chance to host?

"If we win the next two series and win a couple in the SEC tournament," Van Horn said, "then we can get in the talk."

Right now, there is plenty of talk about the Razorbacks, especially with Andrew Benintendi.

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