Razorbacks Mix Speed With Power

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' Danny Hamblin earned freshman All-American honors last season in an unfamiliar role as designated hitter.

Hamblin, the quarterback on his high school football team in Rowlett, Texas, is so athletic that he's always been a big contributor in the field and at the plate in baseball. But a shoulder injury three games into the season prevented Hamblin from throwing.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound power hitter postponed much-needed surgery until after the season. Doctors cleared him to hit and he was solid with a .304 batting average, eight home runs and 42 RBIs.

Between at-bats -- while others were keeping warm on defense -- Hamblin often took swings in batting cages to stay loose and keep his mind on the task at hand.

"I had to do something," Hamblin said. "I'd get to hit about every two or three innings and it was hard to get used to."

Hitting anywhere from the No. 2 to the No. 6 spot in the lineup, Hamblin also struggled to learn his role in the Razorbacks' offensive machine.

That shouldn't be a problem this season since Hamblin has been a mainstay at first base and in the four hole -- batting cleanup -- since spring practices began last month. During batting practice last week, Hamblin drove a ball about three-quarters of the way up the batter's eye in dead center field, a blast some estimated would have traveled some 450-feet.

"This year, I know my role is to drive in runs and lots of them," Hamblin said. "Offseason, we lifted weights hard core so we're a lot stronger as a team than we were last year. We'll all be driving in runs.

"One through nine, we're really solid."

Arkansas third-year coach Dave Van Horn sees more power as well heading into the season opener Friday at 3 p.m. at Dallas Baptist. Last season, the Razorbacks tied for sixth in the Southeastern Conference with 53 home runs.

"We've got some sock in our lineup," Van Horn said. "We play in one of the biggest parks in the league and if we played in a different park, we'd hit a lot more home runs.

Hogs hitting coach Matt Deggs knows the power will be there, but also knows better than to rely solely on power for run production.

"We're a team that has to hit in a system," Deggs said. "It has to be a team approach because we're not going to go out and beat the wall down or play pepper with the warning track every night.

"It's got to be where we're in the strike zone, we know the strike zone and we have a high on-base percentage. We can hit with two strikes and we have to be able to move runners."

The top of the order will likely feature outfielders Jake Dugger and Casey Rowlett, who utilize their speed by hitting line drives and the occasional long ball. They were a combined 34 of 38 on stolen base attempts last season.

As a team, the Hogs led the SEC with 111 stolen bases in 133 attempts and opponents can expect much of the same again this season.

"Getting on base is our main focus right now," said Rowlett, a senior and team captain. "If we can get on base, put the ball in play and make things happen, it puts the pressure on the defense.

"Every now and then, we might pop a two- or three-run homer, but we're not looking for that. Just be tough outs and everything will fall into place."

Dugger, who also was named to a freshman All-American team, batted lead off last season and tied Hamblin with a team-high eight home runs while hitting .293 with 44 RBIs.

"Dugger has power," Van Horn said. "When he wants to let it go, he can. We want him to be on base. We might put him in the three-hole because I want him to swing a little more. Drive people in and hit the ball in the gap."

Senior Clay Goodwin will be somewhere in the middle of the order. Last season, he led the team with a .319 batting average, four homers and 32 RBIs while hitting third in the lineup.

Senior Scott Hode hit cleanup last season and had a .293 average with seven homers and a team-high 53 RBIs. He's been hitting in the six or seven hole during spring practices.

The Razorbacks also are looking for some power numbers from sophomore Blake Parker and freshman Brian Walker, who's expected to start at catcher after transferring from Arizona State.

Parker hit .303 with 21 RBIs, but was homerless in 165 at-bats with several drives caught at the warning track. At Fayetteville High, he hit 28 home runs.

"Going into this (past) week of practices, I honestly didn't have (Parker) in the starting lineup," Van Horn said. "But the last two days out scrimmage-wise, Blake got it going and that's what we want to see.

"We need him. We need his bat and we need him to hit for a little more power."

Walker is taking everything in stride and could provide some offensive punch as well.

"Pretty much everyday I'm batting in the five or the six hole, but I really don't know my role yet," Walker said. "All I know is that when guys are on (base), it's my job to drive them in."

Newcomers Clint Arnold and Chris Hollensworth could see significant time in the outfield. Arnold is described as the best hitter of the freshmen class while Hollensworth may be the strongest player on the team.

The coaches remain guarded about the newcomers' potential in order not to raise expectations too high or put undue pressure on an unproven player.

Senior Scott Bridges is more than proven and coaches will try to hide him from opponents in the nine hole. Bridges had a team-high 24 stolen bases in 25 attempts and showed his strength by hitting two of his three home runs to the opposite field.

Van Horn said putting Bridges in the nine hole gives him a "second lead-off guy."

"If we get on base, we're going to put a lot of runs on the board," Bridges said. "We've got speed and pop all through the lineup."

Coaches believe this is a very talented team offensively that should be able to produce runs in a number of ways.

"Everybody knows you have to be able to come up with a timely hit every game and we have that in this group," Deggs said. "This is going to be a fun group to watch play, just because they are so athletic and they're so strong, don't let their size fool you.

"These guys can hit, hit for power and run with the best of them."

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