Arkansas OF Andrew Benintendi emerges as offensive force
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Andrew Benintendi spent his first season at Arkansas adjusting to college baseball.
Now it’s the rest of the country that has been forced to adjust to the sophomore outfielder, one of the top prospects in next week’s Major League Baseball draft and a driving force behind a team two wins from its first College World Series in three years. The Southeastern Conference Player of the Year is hitting .390 with 18 home runs and 22 steals this season.
The Razorbacks (38-22) take on Missouri State (48-10) this weekend in a best two-of-three super regional, with the winner advancing to Omaha. It’s a position few expected Arkansas to be in after an 11-12 start to the season, one the Razorbacks have reached in large part to Benintendi.
“We wouldn’t be sitting here where we are if Andrew didn’t have the year he had,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “It’s obvious.”
Benintendi’s ascent didn’t happen as quickly as many had expected. The Cincinnati native, a high school All-American, started all but one game for the Razorbacks last season as a freshman and played well — just not up to his video game-like standards.
He hit .276 and scored 45 runs in 61 games, playing his best toward the end of the season, but the overall numbers weren’t up to the expectations of the left-handed slugger who hit .564 as a senior in high school.
“I think I kind of expected to come in here and put up some big numbers, and I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that, too,” Benintendi said. “When I wasn’t producing like I thought I should, it was frustrating.”
Benintendi’s biggest difficulty as a freshman was controlling his emotions during the up-and-down season. His occasional outbursts were met with quick coaching from Van Horn and hitting coach Tony Vitello, who worked with the outfielder to become more controlled during and after at-bats, including the bad ones.
Help was also offered by older teammates, who Vitello said were impressed with Benintendi’s humility and team approach.
“He wouldn’t have had that support system if he was a punk, or only concerned with himself,” Vitello said. “I think that speaks to what kind of kid he is, and what others think of him.”
Benintendi listened to his coaches, just as he listened to them when they brought up the possibility of taking a summer away from playing to fully heal some nagging injuries and add strength.
The result was the 5-foot-10 Benintendi, who arrived in Fayetteville weighing 160 pounds, began this season weighing 180 pounds — a key reason his home run total has jumped from only one a year ago to one off the national lead this season.
Of course, there’s also the matter of Benintendi’s talent.
The 20-year-old was also a standout basketball player in high school, but it’s his ability to hit — born out of childhood hitting sessions with his father, Chris — that impresses his coaches and teammates.
“The game just comes slow to him,” Vitello said.
Benintendi began this year projected as a fifth- or sixth-round draft pick by many, but his breakout season has vaulted him into the top 10 of many projections.
It’s enough to cause the sophomore to reflect on his hard work and good fortune for a moment. Only that moment, however, since he hopes to continue playing for Arkansas past this weekend at the College World Series.
“It’s very exciting, but at the same time I’m excited for it all to be over and just know where I’ll end up,” Benintendi said.