No one brought up the strikeouts to Dave Van Horn after Arkansas bowed out in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional on Sunday afternoon. No one had to.
That was vintage Van Horn when he stepped up for his hitting instructor just before leaving the speaker's platform after the Hogs lost a 6-5 decision to Oklahoma State, ending their season.
"He's a great coach and I'm backing him," Van Horn said about Todd Butler, his first-year hitting instructor. "You'll see. We'll unload next year. We are excited about what we've got coming."
Later, off the podium, when asked about those parting comments, Van Horn said, "I knew what people left the park thinking. Those comments just kind of rolled out there, but I feel good that I said it.
"I've heard some of the stuff, about the strikeouts and I think it was unfair. They don't know him and don't know his work ethic. There's not another coach in America that I'd rather have as our hitting coach."
The Hogs actually cut down on their "Ks" over the last two games in the regional. After striking out 37 times in the three previous games (two losses at the SEC tournament and a loss to Oral Roberts on Friday), the Hogs had only 11 total versus Princeton and Oklahoma State pitching.
Still, it wasn't a good year as far as strikeouts. The Hogs threatened the school record of 462 set in Norn DeBriyn's last season as coach with 454 this year. That compares with 368 last year.
There was some good news in Butler's first year. The Hogs improved in the home run category. They went from 53 last year to 64 this season, including doubling their home run output from 20 to 40 in SEC games. That added power may have figured in a few more SEC victories in a solid 18-12 league record.
"Our strikeouts were high, but Coach Butler did a good job with the hitters we had," Van Horn said. "Look at last year. Our numbers were high there and we didn't have very many homers. Our homers are up. Look at Danny Hamblin and Jake Dugger. They both hit more homers and that really helped us."
Indeed, Hamblin and Dugger finished with a total of 29 homers, compared to 18 last year. Their strikeouts were still high. They finished one-two on the team with a total of 115 strikeouts. Blake Parker and Brian Walker were not far behind.
"We'll strikeout like everyone," Van Horn said. "What you don't want are strikeouts when you've got runners in scoring position with less than two outs. That's where we have to improve.
"But we didn't have the talent out there this year. I think our fans know we were undermanned a little this year. That's going to change if we don't get killed in the draft on Tuesday. Because of injuries, we had some freshmen playing and playing every day. You'd like to have been able to platoon them some.
"I just think (Butler) did a good job with what he had. I know there has been some criticism of him and it's unfair. They don't know him and what kind of a coach we've got. I know the players are upset about the strikeouts. They take it personal."
Butler didn't dodge the tough questions about the strikeouts after Sunday's finale.
"For our first year, it's disappointing, the strikeout numbers," he said. "No doubt, it will get better. I guarantee it."
He actually thought the Hogs had set a school record, and they might have if they had played a little deeper into the NCAA tournament.
"We will set (power) records," he said. "This year, we were going after the strikeout record and that's not the kind of records you want to set."
Specifically, Butler said the Hogs were not aggressive enough at the plate.
"We were taking too many fastballs early in the count," he said. "We probably were not aggressive enough."
Despite the high strikeout totals, Butler said the coaches tried not to harp on it too much.
"You have to live with it a little bit," he said. "If you talk about it too much, it snow balls. It did snow ball anyway.
"I promise (better hitting) will come. I am confident with what we are doing. We are headed in the right direction. I am confident we are doing the right things."
Van Horn isn't worried.
"Our staff did a great job, especially Butler, with what we signed as far as some guys with some pop in their bats," Van Horn said. "He recruited some hitters, some great hitters. We signed about five junior college guys, more than we usually sign. Now we just have to survive the draft Tuesday. We are going to be fine.
"I'm excited about fall ball. It's going to be interesting. I know the season has just ended, but I can't wait to get started. I believe next year will be exciting."
That doesn't mean Van Horn wants fans to be anything but disappointed in the way ‘06 ended.
"Our fans lit it up today, they really did," he said. "I think they knew this year we were a little bit short. Sometimes they got on us and sometimes we deserved it. You have to take it."
Obviously, if there was blame to be assigned, he didn't think any of it should be directed to Todd Butler.
State of the Hogs: Strikeouts
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