State of the Hogs: Stallions

Arkansas rode some outfield stallions -- and a great closer -- to the NCAA Super Regional this weekend against Missouri State.

Dave Van Horn did not pause when the question was asked if he could remember a better outfield group than the 2015 trio of Andrew Benintendi, Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano.

This is Van Horn's 13th season as Arkansas head coach. There's been plenty of good players patrol the Baum Stadium outfield in that span.

But it's hard to argue when you consider the number of clutch hits produced by Benintendi, Spoon and Serrano during the Hogs' run to the NCAA Super Regional this weekend against Missouri State at Baum Stadium. Game time Friday in the series opener is 3:30 p.m. All tickets have been sold, aside from a couple of hundred saved for students.

"Those are three exceptional players," Van Horn said. "Benintendi is very talented, as you'd have to be to hit almost .400. Serrano came here as an infielder, but he's developed into a fine outfielder and he made a great catch Sunday. Spoon has been outstanding. Teams have pitched around Benintendi and Tyler has driven in a lot of runs, hit a lot of doubles.

"We've had some great center fielders here like Brett Eibner and Craig Gentry. Those guys had some really good arms.

"But as far as three guys, this is the best (outfield)."

I tried to think of a better group and it's hard to argue with Van Horn when you look at the raw numbers. I had to go back to the 1979 group -- under Norm DeBriyn -- that helped the Hogs to the College World Series finale with Kevin McReynolds, Marc Brumble and Mike Martin. McReynolds was the seventh overall pick two years later and may be the only player better than Benintendi in UA history.

Benintendi (.390, 18 homers, 54 RBI), Spoon (.330, 6, 50) and Serrano (.286, 6, 31) all were honored to hear the comments from their coach. Those are big-time numbers from big-time horses.

"That's a big compliment coming from DVH," Serrano said. "He's been around some big outfield groups with the talent that's come through here.

"But he might be right, as far as what we have done collectively. If we are going, we are going well. There is nothing that can hold us back. And, sometimes when we are not producing, we have gotten production from the infield. They have picked us up."

Spoon just said, "Awesome."

Benintendi low keys most everything, including the news that he's one of the four finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, the equal to the Heisman Trophy in college baseball. But he was pleased to hear Van Horn's thoughts on the outfield trio.

"That means a lot," Benintendi said. "He's had great players here at Arkansas. I do think we have good chemistry with this outfield group.

"Joe has done a great job in some big situations. You look at what he did at Texas A&M and some other big wins, Joe was involved. Spoon has been great.

"I think we do a good job in the outfield. We have a sense of where each other is going to be and play off the other well. We've worked hard together. Collectively, I do think we are pretty good."

That may be the first time I've heard Benintendi talk about being good and the only way he used the word was to link himself to his teammates. That's just his nature to avoid pointing to himself. He'd rather point to the big RBI that Serrano produced in the victory over St. John's on Sunday night.

"That's what we've been able to do in clutch situations," Benintendi said. "You knew he was going to come through."

Serrano isn't so sure that it was that big of a deal. He would have preferred a clean hit, not a topped grounder so slow that the only play was to first base. It came after St. John's elected to intentionally walk Tucker Pennell, hitting just .190 on the season. Van Horn was elated.

"They walked Tucker, I said great," Van Horn said. "I knew Joe was going to make contact and get the run home."

Serrano's goal was to drive a ball to the outfield for a hit or a sacrifice fly.

"That didn't happen," he said. "The guy was a sinker ball pitcher and it's tough to get it in the air. I didn't get much of it."

What was he thinking in the on-deck circle as he saw Pennell get an intentional walk?

"Honestly, I was trying to yawn and act like I was bored," he said. "That's what I want the other team to see, or the pitcher to see. I want the pitcher to think he's not getting to me. That's my thinking in those situations and that's what I was doing."

Zach Jackson was peeking at the action through a hole in the right field wall from the Arkansas bullpen. Serrano's roller was his signal to get ready for his eighth save of the season. The Berryhill, Okla., fire-ball pitcher knew it was his time to shine.

Jackson struck out the side, throwing his glove in celebration on the final swing and miss.

"I was pretty pumped," he said. "I think the last time I did that, it was the state championship game my senior year. I do get excited."

Van Horn revealed Tuesday that the word from Team USA coaches is that Jackson will close in his four-week trip with the national team this summer.

"That's what they told me," Jackson said. "I'm just so happy to be with the team. I'll take whatever opportunity they give me. It's exciting."

Van Horn said the plan for Jackson next year is to move him to the starting rotation "if we find someone to close. I think we are going to get him back here in the fall, and work towards him becoming a starter."

Jackson knows what that means, learning to throw more strikes.

"If you are a starter, you have to keep your pitch count down," he said. "That's been my problem. I've got to keep working on the mechanic issues that Coach (Dave) Jorn has shown me. I know I have to get better there. I'm too wild sometimes."

Jackson wasn't seen as a top priority in recruiting by Oklahoma State. He said it wouldn't have mattered because he picked Arkansas and the SEC early in the process. But it was still meaningful to win a regional in OSU's park.

"I was excited," he said. "There were some teams that weren't looking at me too hard. But I didn't throw like this. I was probably 88-91 (mph) then."

And, he weighed only 175 pounds. Van Horn said they saw a big frame, though, and knew a weight program might change his velocity.

"What he did was get physically stronger," Van Horn said. "Mentally, he finally believed in himself. He knows he's the guy now. That's what recruiting is all about, looking for someone you think can be the guy. He is the guy.

"We thought he could become pretty good. But when we first started to recruit him, he was a tall, skinny quarterback."

That quarterback part is important. Van Horn said it's the same overall skill set that translates well to baseball, both mentally and physically.

"I think that's right," Jackson said. "You look at our team this year, there are four or five guys in big roles who played quarterback in high school. I think it's about wanting to be that guy. You are that when you play quarterback.

"But I had a lot to work on when I came here. My arm stamina wasn't very good. I had a lot of work to do."

There is still work to do for the Hogs to reach their goal of a trip to Omaha for the College World Series. But Van Horn thinks the pressure is off now.

"To be honest, just getting to the tournament was big," he said. "To look back and see that we were .500 at the end of April. The key now is just to play the games. To me, the pressure was getting into the regional. I don't feel any pressure now. We were once 13-13. That was tough. We had to figure out a way to fix it and you can't dip into the minors for different players."

No, the Hogs rode the same horses. Fortunately, there were some studs in the outfield to saddle up and take the Hogs for a ride.

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