State of the Hogs: Wilkins Finds Stroke

Andy Wilkins has been struggling. Maybe not any more.

NORTH LITTLE ROCK - Andy Wilkins hasn't seen inside pitches since someone put his ninja turtle glove in the attic as a little kid in Broken Arrow, Okla. The big Arkansas first baseman usually drives those where the sun doesn't shine. That is until about one month ago.

"Everyone has pitched Andy away, away, away," Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler said. "So he was going with those outside pitches, driving it the other way to finally he was over striding and lunging at it trying to get to them."

That's when something strange finally happened. SEC pitchers began to get Wilkins out with inside heat. Maybe, no more.

Wilkins delivered some big blows last weekend against Ole Miss, then got the game-winner Tuesday night with a shot into the gap that the right fielder couldn't hold in a 5-4 Arkansas victory over Louisiana Tech in Dickey-Stephens Park. It sent 9,426 home happy.

"I've done some technical things in the last week or so that is helping," Wilkins said. "I don't think anyone has ever gotten me out inside. I don't ever remember anyone trying to pitch me inside. I usually hammer those. But lately I haven't been getting them."

Butler said they did a few drills in the cage early last week with time off for finals. It started to look good against Ole Miss.

"I think it was just a matter of him going too hard into it," Butler said. "He's seen so many pitches away the last three years and he drives it so well the other way that pitchers finally had to come in on him. We just had to get his stride down and smooth things out a little. He looks pretty good right now."

The pitch he drove to the gap wasn't inside or out, Wilkins said.

"Really, it was a pretty good pitch to hit, middle of the plate," he said. "You like to get them like that. I hit it pretty good."

None of the Razorbacks have worried about Wilkins. They knew it was just a matter of time until he got things fixed.

"You knew it would happen sooner or later," said Brett Eibner, the red-hot center fielder. "I don't worry about big Andy. He can handle the bat and he's going to get it going now."

Eibner led the Hogs with three hits. He drove in the tying run in the bottom of the eighth with a clean single to left.

"I tell you what you see right now from Brett, a guy who looks like a big-leaguer," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "I don't mean just the way he's hitting, the way he's hustling and running the bases. He looked pretty good to me going to second on those two doubles. He was flying."

Eibner smiled at those comments from his head coach.

"I think we were all pretty pumped with this crowd tonight," Eibner said. "I don't know if you could have a better atmosphere for a nonconference game away from our park. We all got up when we saw the crowd come in."

The Hogs were finishing up batting practice at 5:30 p.m. when the gates swung open for the 7 p.m. game.

"We heard them pounding on the gates trying to get in," Butler said. "Our guys were really in awe of that. They just came running down the ramps to the rail of the fence. You could hear them yelling the names of the players. That's exciting."

Van Horn said he broke with usual routine, sending his players to the rails to sign autographs.

"I don't know, maybe I shouldn't have done that," he said. "We were too pumped up at the start and it took us a bit to settle in. But you wanted to do everything you could to give the fans something back. So I told them to go over there and sign as many as they could before the game.

"This was pretty neat. I saw a lot of kids in the stands. This is good for baseball in our state. Maybe there were five from this crowd that will play for us some day. Maybe some of these kids saw this and will want to be baseball players instead of playing football. This might make the difference in some of them."

Dave Jorn, UA pitching coach, was in the same position with the team in 1985 and ‘86 when the Hogs played Mississippi State and Memphis in Ray Winder Field. He was wowed by what he saw this time around.

"It's hard for me to remember exactly, but I know I was there," he said. "Back in those days, we'd get 500 for a home game and probably just a few more when we came to Little Rock. But this was unreal. Our players were excited all night long."

Jorn is proud of the way his staff has pitched of late. He was still raving about Mike Bolsinger's performance Sunday against the Rebels. He said it was his best performance as a Hog.

"Mike was pretty good," he said. "He was attacking with all of his pitches. Really, he has that kind of stuff, when he's right mentally. It's not about the physical with him. He just needs to stay focused and be sharp mentally. He went after them. That's the only difference I saw. He just wanted it really bad."

There are others that seem to want it right now, including closer Jordan Pratt, the winner against Tech.

"Jordan is a warrior," Jorn said. "He's got stuff, but what he's really got is that mental edge. He wants the ball. He's going to come after you. He has one mechanical thing we have to watch, but he's on right now."

So is Andy Wilkins. And that might be the news of the night.

"That's a big key for us right now," Van Horn said. "Andy looks like he's back where he was earlier. For him, staying on that inside pitch is a big key."

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