FAYETTEVILLE — Most of Arkansas designated hitter Blake Baxendale’s two years in college have been defined by injuries, accidents and unusual occurrences.
First, there was the elbow injury and Tommy John surgery that forced him to redshirt the 2013 season. Then, the redshirt freshman suffered a knee during a hit-and-run accident on his scooter last fall. If that wasn’t enough frustration, Baxendale said two weeks after recovering he was injured again in a car accident.
But the optimistic slugger, who also had to leave two games this season after being injured filling in for catcher Jake Wise, didn’t want to describe the string of unfortunate incidents as a curse Friday. Baxendale had another way of looking at it.
“I’d just really say my luck wasn’t the best,” he said. “Hopefully that turns around.”
Arkansas agrees after watching Baxendale produce at the plate the past few games.
Baxendale has become one of the Razorbacks’ biggest threats lately, going 5-for-12 with a home run, two doubles and 6 RBIs in a three-game stretch. He hit his first home run — a grand slam — in the series finale at LSU and drove in five runs. He had another double and RBI in Arkansas’ win against Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday.
He’ll be in the heart of the lineup again when Arkansas (23-15, 7-8 in SEC) opens a three-game series against No. 16 Vanderbilt (28-10, 7-8) in Baum Stadium tonight at 6:35. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said he is earning the playing time.
“The last few games it has definitely helped,” Van Horn said. “He’s battled some injuries. He’s had some issues. Obviously with any hitter the more at-bats you get, usually the more comfortable you feel. But I really believe the confidence level with Blake right now is at an all-time high for him.”
It has taken a long time for Baxendale to get there even though he was regarded as a player who could make an instant impact in the lineup as a freshman.
Baxendale, who is the younger brother of former Arkansas pitcher DJ Baxendale, was forced to watch after the Tommy John surgery and has had trouble getting on track because of the accidents and other problems that limited him in the fall.
Still, he entered the season as Arkansas’ backup catcher and first baseman and earned a few starts. He struggled at the plate early on, but has found some comfort as the team’s designated hitter, providing some much-needed pop.
“He’s a guy who has shown that he can handle the bat at times,” Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson said after Baxendale went 2-for-4 on Tuesday. “He’s able to drive the ball whether it be out of the park or in the gap for a double. It’s a little boost. When he comes to the plate he can juice one out of the park at any time.”
The success began with an RBI double in Arkansas’ loss at South Carolina two weeks ago. The two-out hit gave the Razorbacks a 1-0 lead in an eventual 2-1 loss. But more important, it served as a sign that Baxendale was gaining confidence.
He was back in the lineup for the second game of the LSU series and went 1-for-3 in a loss. Van Horn gave him another chance in the series finale. He helped the Razorbacks set the tone with the grand slam and finished 2-for-5 with 5 RBIs.
“Grand slam, solo shot, it really didn’t matter to me,” Baxendale said about his first home run as a Razorback. “I just wanted to hit one. For that specific moment, a grand slam was great. We got four runs on the board in the first inning.
“The home run felt awesome being my first college home run. With me not playing last year due to Tommy John, I hadn’t hit one in awhile. So it felt really good.”
He has teamed with another surging hitter — first baseman Eric Fisher — to help strengthen Arkansas’ reshaped lineup.
The Razorbacks will be tested once again tonight against Vanderbilt ace Tyler Beede, who opted to go to college despite being a first-round draft pick out of high school. But Arkansas knows Baxendale will be confident in his at-bats.
“That’s a big deal in the line up when you can have (a DH) with some pop in their bat,” Arkansas shortstop Michael Bernal said. “Obviously Blake has been putting some extra juice on the baseball. He’s seeing the ball well and having good swings.”
Baxendale knows consistency is key to staying in the lineup ahead of others like Krisjon Wilkerson and Clark Eagan. Staying healthy is vital, too, which Baxendale admits has been “something that I’ve struggled with” at Arkansas.
But Baxendale, who has been playing with a sore index finger after being hit by a bat, feels good and plans to take advantage of his role in Arkansas’ lineup.
“Early in the season I really didn’t get that many opportunities,” Baxendale said. “I really wasn’t swinging it that well in batting practices and stuff. Just to get opportunities is great and to make the most of them is even better.”
No. 16 Vanderbilt (28-10, 7-8 in SEC) at Arkansas (23-15, 7-8 in SEC)
When: Today at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 6:05 p.m., Sunday at noon
Where: Baum Stadium
TV: Saturday – CST; Sunday - ESPN
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
On the Mound: Today - RHP Trey Killian (1-6, 3.00 ERA) vs. RHP Tyler Beede (5-4, 3.23 ERA); Saturday – LHP Jalen Beeks (5-2, 1.36 ERA) vs. TBA; Sunday – RHP Chris Oliver (4-3, 2.41 ERA) vs. RHP Tyler Ferguson (5-2, 2.88 ERA)
At the Plate: Arkansas – LF Joe Serrano (.328, 19 RBI), 2B Brian Anderson (.321, 3 HR, 32 RBI), RF Andrew Benintendi (.263, HR, 16 RBI), CF Tyler Spoon (.273, 3 HR, 28 RBI); Vanderbilt — 2B Dansby Swanson (.364, 2 HR, 17 RBI), 1B Bryan Reynolds (.338, 2 HR, 27 RBI), 3B Xavier Turner (.331, HR, 20 RBI), SS Vince Conde (.320, 2 HR, 28 RBI)