Hitting On All Cylinders

FAYETTEVILLE -- Todd Butler didn't know what he was getting into when he was named Arkansas' hitting coach last July. Turns out he got much more than he could have hoped for in terms of talent.

When Butler started watching guys in the batting cages, he saw the big league swing in Danny Hamblin, the opposite field power of Jake Dugger, the raw power of Blake Parker, and the yet-to-be-fully-tapped potential of Clint Arnold and Brian Walker, among others. Throw in line drive hitters with speed like Craig Gentry, Ben Tschepikow and John Henry Marquardt and Butler saw a high-octane offense in the making with a few kinks needing to be worked out.

"A lot of the guys I felt like were over rotating," said Butler, who makes his debut Friday when the Hogs open the season with George Mason in the Jaguar Invitational in Mobile, Ala. "So we really worked on staying on line to the pitcher and using more of the middle of the infield and gap-to-gap."

Butler's system was taught to every hitter and he saw specific fundamentals to improve in some individuals. Hamblin, who Butler said could coach hitting along with Walker, was given drills to help reverse the spin on the ball. He led the team with 10 homers last season, but was pulling many balls to left field with top spin that were dying at the warning track.

Now Hamblin and everybody seems to be hitting more homers. Nonetheless, they haven't forgotten the basics of Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn's running offense.

"We have power, but we also expect to steal a lot of bases," Hamblin said. "Coach Van Horn has always talked about running on offense and really, to truly display power, it's about getting some guys on base and popping one here and there.

"We really want to hit a lot of doubles, and let home runs come. That's what coach Butler always preaches about."

Dugger's number of doubles should go up. He was asked to bring more power to the lineup before last season and struggled to a .237 batting average while trying to pull the ball over the fence.

"We have enough power that Jake Dugger needs to be a doubles guy," Butler said. "I don't think you'll look for homers out of him, but he's going to hit his frequent home runs. He needs to put the ball in the gap and keep the ball out of the air and we believe he will have a great season."

Dugger, a junior who'll start in left field, believes he's at his best when simply trying to hammer a pitch where it's thrown. If away, then he's going to try to hammer it to left with his left-handed swing.

More than half of his eight homers last season were to opposite field.

"Last year was a fluke," Dugger said. "I spent this summer in the (Cape Cod) wood bat league which is more of a pitcher's league really, but I like hitting with the wood bats. It makes you center the ball and helps your swing."

Parker may be the most improved player because of his focus, according to Butler. All the coaches say he's carrying himself with a new level of confidence as a junior.

"He's what you're looking for in a player," Butler said. "He can run for a big man, he can throw and he can hit for power and he can bunt. I think he has really improved along with Craig Gentry who's going to be a key in that (leadoff) spot."

Tschepikow will likely be in the two hole in the order followed by Hamblin and either Parker or Walker, depending on the pitching matchup. Arnold and Marquardt will be in the middle of the order on most nights.

Freshman Wayne Wrozek is expected to battle Chris Hollensworth for the designated hitter spot, although nothing is set in stone early as Van Horn likes to mix up the order before Southeastern Conference play. He said the hitters seem to be farther ahead at this time than last year.

"I think the main thing is experience, but it's had a lot to do with coach Butler working with them," Van Horn said. "We've just been getting after them. This can be a team that can be pretty offensive, we've just got to keep some people healthy and do what we do and we'll be able to score some runs."

With experience comes confidence, something the Razorbacks sound like they have plenty of in the offense heading into 2006.

"We going to have some power, sure," Marquardt said. "Our big guys are going to hit it out of the park a lot more and little guys, like me and Tschepikow and Arnold, we've just got to get on and let them knock us in.

"If we all do our jobs, I think we're going to have one of the top lineups in the country."

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