Wilkins Providing Hogs Pop, Consistency

The lists perturb Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler. They absolutely enrage and frustrate him. Anytime, Butler sees a recent publication or a Web site compile a ranking of the top power hitters in the Southeastern Conference, he notices a glaring omission.

He always reacts with the same question: Where's Andy Wilkins, the Razorbacks' starting sophomore first baseman.

"To me, Andy Wilkins is one of the most underappreciated hitters in the SEC," Butler said. "I don't know why. This guy's really good. His power numbers are outstanding, and he's just always hit. He lifts players in the dugout, he's always smiling, and we're fortunate to have him."

Butler may consider him underrated, but SEC coaches surely aren't ignoring the 6-foot-2, 225-pound native of Broken Arrow, Okla.

Wilkins enters Arkansas' crucial weekend series at Alabama not only with a team-best 15 home runs and 37 runs batted in. He'll also bring an improved knowledge of the strike zone with him, an increased discipline that has helped Wilkins deal with opposing pitchers who try to nibble at the zone.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said Wilkins has dealt with the scrutiny of being a cleanup hitter, despite his average dropping from .331 in 2008 to .313 this season.

"He's doing a good job of hitting with two strikes, much better than last year," Van Horn said. "He sees a lot of different pitches up there. He's seeing a lot more breaking balls this year, but he's been able to lay off of the stuff out of the zone."

Wilkins said he wished he had learned that last season, because his tendency to swing at bad pitches eventually got him in trouble. He swung at a pitch well off the plate against Auburn last April and pulled an oblique muscle.

The nagging injury forced him to miss a month.

"That was miserable, having to sit out and try to let it heal," Wilkins said. "I tried to come back so many times. Me being out was hurting the team, so I kept trying to come back, but it kept getting worse. I finally had to shut it down for a while."

Wilkins returned in early May, but he vowed then to remain healthy. So far, so good. He played 40 games with the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League without injury. And he has started all 45 of Arkansas' game this season, starting 33 of the last 35 at first base.

Van Horn loves knowing he can plan on penciling Wilkins in at first base for nearly every contest. Wilkins obviously doesn't mind, either.

"There's no easy games. That's how I look at it," Wilkins said. "Even midway through the season, there weren't really any reasons for me to take a day off. It's a grind, but I enjoy it."

Butler's noticing that Wilkins relishes coming to the ballpark every day. He's also seeing, though, that Wilkins' confidence is starting to match up with his ability. Butler has worked hard with Wilkins, trying to get him to believe in his worthiness among the SEC's best power hitters.

Wilkins has increased his walk total, as Butler hoped he'd do this season. Plus, Wilkins possesses "great hands for hitting," likely due to his playing the drums his whole life, Butler said.

So it was troubling for Butler to see Wilkins not consider himself elite up until recently. A mental transformation is taking place, however, Butler assured.

"I think he's just now starting to realize what kind of hitter he is compared to the other SEC guys," Butler said. "I think he's always known he's good, but I think he's looked around, and he's seen (Rich) Poythress from Georgia, and all these guys that are the so-called better hitters in the SEC, and I think he's saying, ‘I can be just as good.'"

Maybe those list-makers will take note of that for next season.



Andy Wilkins



Class: Sophomore

Position: First Base/Third Base

Height: 6-foot-2

Weight: 225 pounds

Hometown: Broken Arrow, Okla.

High School: Broken Arrow High

Notables: Carries the Razorbacks' second-best batting average at .313 and leads the Hogs in home runs (15) and RBIs (37). ... Batted .271 with a team-high five homers and 26 RBIs this past summer for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League. ... Missed 21 games during the 2008 season because of an oblique injury but still hit .331 with eight homers and 38 RBI. ... Taken by the Texas Rangers in the 25th round of the 2007 Major League Baseball draft. ... Twice named all-Oklahoma and smacked 36 homers during his Broken Arrow High career.




WEEKEND TICKET



NO. 12 ARKANSAS AT NO. 22 ALABAMA

WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Friday

WHERE: Sewell-Thomas Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

ON THE AIR: KFAY-AM 1030; KURM-AM 790, FM-100.3; KHGG-AM 1580, FM-103.1; KXIO-FM 106.9

RECORDS: Arkansas 31-14, 14-9 Southeastern Conference; Alabama 32-15, 14-9

SERIES RECORD: Alabama leads 35-21

TODAY'S PROBABLE STARTERS: Arkansas, Dallas Keuchel (7-1, 4.17); Alabama, Austin Hyatt (7-1, 3.38)

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