State of the Hogs: Jorn and Benny

Dave Jorn gets credit for great work with the Arkansas pitchers, but he can work his magic in other areas, too. Andrew Benintendi was convinced to close his stance by the veteran Arkansas assistant coach.

Don't look now, but this may be the last weekend to get a glimpse of the hottest thing on campus, the Arkansas baseball team. And, in case you weren't paying attention, that may mean your last look at Andrew Benintendi.

It's senior weekend, with graduation ceremonies scheduled for Saturday afternoon. There's even some juniors likely playing their last games at Baum Stadium, including Tyler Spoon and Trey Killian. Joe Serrano and Spoon will walk across the Bud Walton Arena stage at 3 p.m., then hustle to batting practice.

But there won't be any ceremony for Benintendi, the sophomore center fielder setting the SEC on its ear and leading the Razorbacks to six straight series victories. The Hogs will try to become the first team in school history to win seven straight in the SEC when Tennessee arrives Friday.

Benintendi leads the SEC in batting average (.386) and home runs (15). He's not far back of the RBI lead. Florida's JJ Schwarz has 50 and Benintendi is fifth with 46.

It's not a surprise that Benintendi is doing well. He was the national high school player of the year at Cincinnati Madiera where he hit .542 over a four-year career. He finished as Ohio's all-time leader in runs scored (199) and second in hits (213).

It's just that he made a huge jump from his freshman season when he hit .276 for the Hogs. But it all began to change midway through the SEC season last year. He was hitting .263. Head coach Dave Van Horn noted it was probably the first time in his career that Benintendi “had failed.”

Van Horn joined hitting coach Tony Vitello in suggesting a change in his batting stance. Both wanted Beintendi to close his lead foot and soften his stride. Finally, pitching coach Dave Jorn hit the right cord, perhaps a little tougher approach, as the Hogs were preparing for a road series at LSU.

“We'd all been on him about being too open,” Van Horn said Wednesday. “I told him he was off balance. Dave (Jorn) just kept on him. Dave can do that, like he's hacked off.”

Van Horn can bring the tough love, but there may not be anyone as blunt or tough as Jorn, a former minor league pitching coach with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Mets.

Clearly, Jorn is one of the top pitching coaches in college baseball. He's worked magic with the UA pitchers in the last month. The bullpen is suddenly solid and freshman Keaton McKinney has blossomed as an ace on Sunday.

But, don't think Jorn is JUST a pitching coach. He is going to help the UA hitters, too, if he sees a flaw. Last year, he got his point across to Benintendi, helping him make the adjustment to salty SEC pitching.

“When you are a freshman in this league, you are facing some pretty good stuff,” Jorn said. “What I saw was a lot of motion in his stance, swing. He was open and striding and diving at the ball. There were a lot of pitches that were just eating him up.

“Those are things I saw. My job is to watch hitters and get them out. You watch what they are doing. I could see what they were doing to him and I tried to help him.”

Benintendi said he noticed an immediate difference. He raised his average to .276 by season's end. Most see their overall average drop in SEC play. So the change was working.

Van Horn had some more advice at season's end. Go home and lift weights and take a summer off. He'd worn himself down from going from baseball to basketball and back the previous four seasons. Lift weight and get stronger. Benintendi added almost 15 pounds of muscle over the summer. With a more balanced swing, more strength and a baseball that travels further, Benintendi has rolled through his sophomore year.

Jorn didn't want to take the credit. He said Benintendi put in the work and is just that talented.

“It doesn't take much with someone like Andrew because he's a good baseball guy, has good understanding,” Jorn said. “He's real good. He won't be here next year.”

Benintendi doesn't want to think about that. And, he doesn't want to think about playing his last game at Baum this weekend. The Hogs still have an outside chance of playing host to a regional, but Jorn's point is on target.

“If it happens, it happens,” Beintendi said. “I really am not looking ahead. I'm not worried about any of that. I'm just trying to win games.”

That's exactly the approach Van Horn has preached, but the Arkansas coach knows Jorn is correct.

“He could be a sandwich pick,” Van Horn said, noting the major league draft's round between the first and second. “The scouts love him.”

Scouts are allowed to interview players on Mondays. There has been a long line waiting on Benintendi.

“I think the most has been seven,” Benintendi said of his visits. “They just want to explain the process and get to know you.”

It's been fun for Tyler Spoon to watch. As a hot fourth-year junior scheduled to pick up his diploma on Saturday, Spoon also has been attractive to pro scouts during the Monday interviews.

“I'm probably not getting as many questions as Andrew,” Spoon said. “They are really interested in him because he's clearly a top guy.”

Teammates love Benintendi. They've had fun teasing him as the national attention grows.

“We've gotten him pretty good at times,” Joe Serrano said. “The thing about it, he's not any different now than he was when he got here. He does not like all of the attention. We know that. So we kid him about it. He knows we have good intentions.”

Pitcher Jacob Stone said there was no one got Benintendi out in the fall, but that didn't set him apart at the time.

“We weren't getting anyone out,” Stone said. “We knew some of it was the new baseball, but our offense was tough to handle in the fall. To be honest, everyone was hitting us. We were questioning our ability (as pitchers).

“So I can't say that we saw 15 home runs coming from him. He didn't have a great freshman year.

“What I can tell you is that we never saw him change as a person. He's a great teammate and an even better person. He's humble and cares about his family and plays his heart out until someone tears his jersey away from him.”

Benintendi insists the goal is not to hit home runs. He's just trying to hit it hard. But, if someone pitches him inside, his hands are so quick, the ball jumps out down the line in right.

“I don't think about them,” he said. “I didn't think I'd hit 15, but I'll take it.”

There is nothing about him that's not perfect mentally. There are two big series left with Tennessee and Georgia that occupy his mind, not a possible SEC triple crown, only the second in league history. Rafael Palmeiro is the only other to accomplish the feat, in 1984.

“Mentally, we just want to put ourselves in as good of a position in the standings as we can,” he said. “You just have to keep winning the next game. If we slack off, we could be back where we were.”

The Hogs are 14-10 in SEC play after starting the SEC season at 1-5.

“We just try to stay on an even keel,” he said. “We always felt like we had ability. We just had to stay together.”

Actually, what the Hogs had to do was climb up on Andrew Benintendi's back.

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