Saturday, November 15, 2008

SPORTS>> Bear becomes a boar

Leader sports editor

D.J. Baxendale is hoping no one holds it against him that he hasn’t always been a rabid Razorback fan.

Or that he actually preferred LSU sports in general growing up.

“But I’ve always loved Razorback baseball,” said the Sylvan Hills’ senior ace who helped lead the Bears to a 6A state championship and earned the MVP in the process.

Razorback baseball returned Baxendale’s fondness on Wednesday morning, signing him to a scholarship to pitch at the University of Arkansas.

Baxendale put together an amazing junior season after transferring from Abundant Life after his sophomore year. His 0.67 ERA, 120 strikeouts and fewer than 20 walks had Sylvan Hills head coach Denny Tipton still shaking his head at the signing ceremony at the Sylvan Hills Media Center on Wednesday.

“A year ago we picked up a transfer from Abundant Life by the name of D.J. Baxendale,” Tipton said. “He ended up shattering all the records. His (ERA and strikeouts) are totally unheard of. Any time you allow under one run a game for the entire season, it’s remarkable.”

Beyond his skills, Tipton said Baxendale also has the right mindset for the game.

“D.J. is a 25-year-old in a 17-year-old’s body,” he said. “His maturity on the field is just amazing.”

Baxendale pitched the Bears into the championship game last May with a win over Searcy in the quarterfinals, followed by a 2-hit shutout of Texarkana in the semifinals two days later. Though he failed to get the win in the championship victory over Watson Chapel, Baxendale delivered the game-winning hit as the Bears rallied from three runs down in the final inning.

Baxendale orally committed to Missouri State as a sophomore, but as he began to draw more notice during his standout junior season, he decided to re-examine his options. Those included Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Memphis and Mississippi State.

“I really didn’t want to go any further than six or seven hours away so my parents could come and watch me.”

With the Razorbacks losing the great majority of their pitching corps to graduation, Baxendale figures to gets some tosses as a freshman. The Arkansas coaching staff told him they’re expecting the new pitchers to come in a produce right away, Baxendale said. Depending on his velocity, he might be used as a starter or a long reliever, he added.

Baxendale throws from the high eighties to the low nineties and said he will approach high school hitters next spring as though they are SEC foes.

“I want to focus on keeping my pitches low and on making my curve ball and slider sharper,” he said.

Baxendale thinks the Bears, who will drop down to 5A this year, have a good chance to repeat.

“We lose everybody in our outfield, but we’ve got most of our infield coming back,” he said. “We’ve also got even more good pitchers. We’re going to be a tough team. Everybody will be gunning for us, but coach Tipton always has us ready.”

For Tipton, a life-long Razorback fan, Baxendale’s signing with Arkansas is a special treat.

“It’s always a great honor any- time we sign one of our players,” he said. “It’s rare that it’s with the University of Arkansas. We always enjoy going up to watch the Razorbacks play and this year, when we go, we’ll get to see one of our own.

“I think D.J. has an outstanding opportunity to come into Arkansas and pitch right away and probably to be drafted, too.”