FAYETTEVILLE — It didn’t take Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn and the Razorbacks long to throw a few playful jabs at freshman Andrew Benintendi.
All they had to do was watch their starting center fielder and leadoff batter go without a hit during the season-opening series against Appalachian State.
“We were kidding him about it (Wednesday),” Van Horn said. “His dad came all the way down from Cincinnati to see him get his first college hit …
“Now he’s going to have to drive all the way back.”
It wasn’t exactly a disappointing weekend, though.
Benintendi may have gone 0-for-6, but still had an impact in three starts at the top of the order during Arkansas’ sweep. He drew four walks, was hit by a pitch three times, scored four runs and logged a .538 on-base percentage.
So it was an unusually productive debut. One Benintendi hopes to add to — with some hits — when the Razorbacks (3-0) open their second series of the season against Eastern Illinois (1-2) in Baum Stadium at 3:05 p.m. today.
“My overall role is to get on base and score runs,” Benintendi said. “As a leadoff hitter you’ve got to see pitches and let the other guys see pitches while you’re up there and get the pitcher’s pitch count up. I think that’s my job as a leadoff hitter.”
Benintendi has been a big part of Arkansas’ 2014 plans since joining the program last fall. Van Horn said it didn’t take long for Ohio’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year to make an impression, proving worthy of a starting job in center field.
He backed it up in preseason practice and became the only freshman in Arkansas’ lineup last weekend, starting alongside veterans Joe Serrano and Tyler Spoon in the outfield. He held his own at the plate, too, even without a hit. Benintendi showed a willingness to wear a pitch for his team and the patience to draw a walk.
Arkansas pitcher Chris Oliver, who played with Benintendi on a traveling team in high school, said it was evident back then. He knew Benintendi was going to be “something special” and has proven to be a difficult out since arriving.
“He’s got a really good eye for the zone,” Oliver said. “Pitching to him in the fall, I noticed that. You hardly can get him to chase anything if it’s not in the zone. He’s a tough out, too. He’ll work you and work you. He’ll run you up in pitches and take advantage of mistakes. He won’t move. I remember I hit him in the head with a 94-mile an hour fastball in the fall, and he took it and took first base.
“He won’t budge. It’s his box.”
Arkansas saw plenty of it during his season debut. Van Horn said Benintendi understands his role — getting on base — and wasn’t concerned about the rest.
He also believes there’s a reason for the slow start: Benintendi isn’t 100 percent after undergoing surgery for a broken bone in his hand last December. Benintendi — who hit .564 with 12 home runs and 57 RBIs as a senior — said the pain is gone, but admitted he’s not quite back to where he was before the surgery.
“Typically, I don’t usually foul off that many pitches,” I think when I do, my timing is wrong or something like that. But I think over the next few games, it really comes down to timing and I think over the next couple games, I’ll be on with my timing.”
But Van Horn said it won’t keep Benintendi out of the leadoff spot tonight.
“He doesn’t care about his batting average,” Van Horn said. “Obviously he would as time went on. But as long as we’re winning and he’s getting on base, he’s going to keep playing and we’ll get him there.”
Benintendi said it was good to have his father, mother and sisters in town for the opening series. He was disappointed they didn’t get to see his first hit, but is confident it will come soon.
Of course, he doesn’t want it to take place in front of his family anymore.
That’s because they won’t be back to watch him play for a few weeks.
Benintendi said his hitless streak better be over by then.
“I hope so,” Benintendi said. “But I hope I’m getting on base still.”