Arkansas' Baxendale primed for standout season

KURT VOIGT AP Sports Writer Published:

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- DJ Baxendale's earliest memories aren't all that different from his life these days.

The Arkansas pitcher, one of the Southeastern Conference's and country's best, wouldn't have it any other way.

"From the time I could walk, I had a bat in my hand," Baxendale said. "I knew early on that I wanted to play big-time college baseball and in the major leagues. ... Everything I've done and worked for is to do that."

Baxendale, a junior, took a giant leap toward reaching his goals last season when he moved from the closer's role to Friday-night starter for the Razorbacks. The right-hander excelled in his new role, posting a 10-2 record with a 1.58 ERA -- fourth in the SEC and 10th nationally.

For all of the success, however, Baxendale wasn't satisfied with either his own performance or that of his team last season. That's why he spent much of the summer pitching for Team USA, hoping to make another jump in progress and lead Arkansas back to the College World Series for the first time since 2009.

And maybe, just maybe, more than that.

"We've done so much here, but the one thing we haven't is win the whole thing," Baxendale said. "There's no reason why that can't happen."

The Razorbacks are expected to be one of the top teams in the SEC this season after finishing 40-22 last season and reaching an NCAA regional before falling to Arizona State. They are ranked No. 4 by Baseball America and return a pitching staff that is so deep that coach Dave Van Horn expects to struggle to find innings for all of his hurlers.

"Obviously, we're excited about the season," Van Horn said. "(With the) preseason rankings and whenever you have a pitching staff coming back like we have, we feel like we can be in every game."

Arkansas finished fourth in the SEC with a 3.20 team ERA last season and returns all nine of its top pitchers this year. At the top of that list is Baxendale, who allowed just 69 hits in 85 1-3 innings and held opposing batters to a .228 average.

The junior, who throws consistently in the low 90s, struck out 77 and walked just 21. Despite the success, he spent much of the offseason working to tighten his curveball and also added a cutter to his arsenal of pitches.

The work comes as no surprise to his coaches and teammates, who have watched Baxendale blossom from an undrafted player out of high school to a likely top prospect following the season.

"Every time he pitches when you talk to him, he wants feedback," Arkansas catcher Jake Wise said. "He wants to know how every pitch was, how everything is. That's just how he is. He's a great competitor, and he wants to know how his stuff is so he can get better."

Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said Baxendale worked on the curveball and cutter to improve his strikeout numbers, as well as continuing to sharpen his changeup. Jorn also credited Baxendale for his receptiveness to new ideas, calling the pitcher "a coach's dream."

Baxendale's ERA last season fell by two runs from 3.58 as a freshman, and Jorn also has no doubt Baxendale can make an equally dramatic jump in improvement this season.

"I'm not sure where his ceiling lies," Jorn said. "I'm not sure he's every going to be an upper 90s fastball, but sometimes that's not what controls the level of success.

"It's your intangibles, your work ethic, your instincts, your ability. He's got a good package of all those things."

Jorn is also confident Baxendale can put any thoughts about this summer's draft out of his head and concentrate on the Razorbacks' goal of returning to the College World Series.

"He wants to do whatever it's going to take at the moment," Jorn said. "That future stuff takes care of itself down the road. He's trying to stay in the moment, the present, and take care of what he can do to help the team win and benefit himself individually."