Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SPORTS >> Hog’s Baxendale savors role

Special to The Leader

The Arkansas Razorbacks’ freshmen pitchers opened the season looking up to a sophomore who hadn’t won any more games than they had.

DJ Baxendale, the sophomore right-hander from Sylvan Hills, brought an 0-2 record into his season-opening start at Baum Stadium against the Delaware State Hornets.

It was a sign of coach Dave Van Horn’s faith that he not only tabbed Baxendale to start the opener, he projected him to come out of the bullpen two, or even three times an SEC series.

“Basically what I am telling you is I think he’s our best pitcher,” Van Horn said.

Being a winless ace is quite a load, but Baxendale didn’t stay winless for long. He won his opening day start, 5-0, as he and Cade Lynch combined to allow seven hits.

Baxendale scattered four hits over five innings and got seven of the Hogs’ 14 strikeouts.

Entering Tuesday’s non-conference game with Oklahoma, Baxendale was 5-0 with a 1.68 ERA, both team bests, and was tied for the team lead with two saves.

“Just getting thrown into the mix as a freshman last year helped me really mature early,” Baxendale, 6-2, 190 pounds, said.

Baxendale has been used just as Van Horn promised. He has started twice with a victory and a no-decision and got his other three victories in long-duration relief.

“If you are looking at having to win one game, I will start him,” Van Horn said. “But I wouldn’t mind closing with him on Friday and then maybe he can pitch an inning Saturday and go three, four or five on Sunday.

“DJ may get 12 starts before the season is over with or he might have 15 saves.”

Most recently Baxendale worked the final 2 1/3 innings to beat Vanderbilt 2-1 on Friday as he gave up three hits, walked none and struck out three.

He took the next two games of the Vanderbilt series off and should have been rested and ready to go against Oklahoma on Tuesday.

Baxendale entered Tuesday second on the team with 27 strikeouts and third with 27 1/3 innings pitched. In a big clue to Baxendale’s success, he leads all pitchers who have significant playing time with only three walks.

“I’m for any role I can help the team,” Baxendale said of his multiple uses. “We have a younger pitching staff coming in this year, so as the year goes on we’ll have to play it by feel and see how it turns out.”

Baxendale was the Arkansas player of the year as a senior at Sylvan Hills, where he wound up after also playing at Arkadelphia and Abundant Life. He was 42-12 in high school with an 0.73 ERA and was 25-1 his final two years at Sylvan Hills, leading the Bears to the 6A state championship as a junior and earning MVP honors in the state tournament.

As an Arkansas freshman Baxendale was 0-2 with a team-high seven saves and a 3.58 ERA.

“He was not intimidated as a freshman,” Arkansas pitching coach Dave Jorn said. “He had moments when he was banged around but he was able to bounce back from it.”

Last summer Baxendale earned pitcher of the year honors for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the prestigious, wood-bat Cape Cod League, a hotbed for Major League hopefuls.

“Playing all summer in Cape Cod also helped,” Baxendale said. “It was really good getting all that experience. The summer went well. I was used as a closer in Cape Cod and finished with 10 or 11 saves.”

In 2004, Van Horn used Jay Sawatski and Charley Boyce in multiple roles similar to what Baxendale has done and they pitched Arkansas all the way to the College World Series.

Growing up in state, Baxendale, of course, is familiar with all that.

“We are a bunch of no-name guys right now and we plan to go out and make a name for ourselves,” Baxendale said. “So whatever role they want, I’ll be happy with it as long as I am pitching.”

— Leader sports editor Todd Traub contributed to this story.