OMAHA, Neb. -- From the on-deck circle, Arkansas' Tyler Spoon could have any number of things on his mind. But even he catches himself turning into a spectator when teammate Andrew Benintendi digs into the batter’s box.
“It’s just fun to watch him,” Spoon says with a smile.
It’s hard to blame Spoon for sitting back and admiring every once in a while. Benintendi’s 19 homers are tied for most in the nation this year, while his .715 slugging percentage ranks third. Meanwhile his .380 batting average is good for 22nd in the country and his .489 on-base percentage is third, going along with his team-leading 84 hits, 61 runs, 55 RBI and 47 walks.
It didn’t take long for Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn to notice a difference in his sophomore 3-hitter when Benintendi returned to campus this fall. He was noticeably stronger, adding 10-15 pounds of muscle on his 5-foot-10 frame to put him at 180 pounds.
The less-noticeable difference was on Benintendi’s face.
“Just a total different type of look,” Van Horn said. “Just the way he walked around, he knew he was good.”
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“I kind of assumed that I could go straight in and produce.”
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On Friday, Benintendi sat down to speak with NCAA.com about his breakout season and first trip to the College World Series, set to start off with a meeting against Virginia at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday. As he approached the table, he had his 34-inch, 31-ounce black and yellow Easton S2 on his left shoulder before placing it on the ground to speak. It would’ve been weirdly fitting had he hung onto the bat the entire interview. After all, his bat speaks as well as he does.
Benintendi was a highly-touted recruit coming out of Madeira High School in Cincinnati. He was named the 2013 ACBA/Rawlings National High School Player of the Year after hitting .564 with 12 homers, 57 RBIs and 38 stolen bases. He was also named a first-team all-American and was named the Gatorade Ohio Baseball Player of the Year at the conclusion of his senior season.
“I think I kind of assumed that I could go straight in and produce,” he said.
Then came the adjustment period. Practice, study hall, games, travel, the length of the season. What really set his rookie season off on the wrong foot was injury. The first was a quick procedure on his right palm in December 2013 that carries a noticeable scar today. It put Benintendi in a splint for three weeks and kept him out of the batting cage. Then it was a hamstring injury midway through his freshman season.
The injuries took a noticeable toll on Benintendi’s play. He was 12-for-57 (.211) in his first 17 games, primarily as the Razorbacks’ leadoff hitter.
“When I was struggling, it kind of got frustrating,” he said. “I think overall, it wasn’t as bad a season as I make it out to be, jumping straight into the SEC as a freshman.”
Part of Benintendi’s struggles were health related, but as the leadoff hitter he put more emphasis on trying to get on base and being a table-setter rather than driving the ball as he had done in high school.
“I think that he thought that he had to do more than he needed to do,” Van Horn said. “You can talk to them all you want; it’s up to them to mentally get through it.”
But as the season progressed, so did Benintendi’s health. And that’s when things started to take off.
The center fielder went 14 for his next 43 (.326) before Van Horn moved him up to the 2-hole, where he hit at a 22-for-71 clip. The only place Van Horn could properly place him became his rightful home: the 3-spot. He’s been there ever since.
“This year, hitting third, has changed my approach in where I’m trying to drive the balls to the gaps and hit for more power,” Benintendi said, “and I think I’ve been able to do that without striking out as much.”
“A lot of people don’t realize this: The best he swung the bat the whole year for us as a freshman was the last three weeks to the last month,” Van Horn said. Benintendi closed out the year 36-for-125 (.288) to bring his season average to .276.
Little did either of them know, the best was yet to come.
The accolades have come from all over for Benintendi. He was named national player of the year by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, SEC Player of the Year and won the Dick Howser Trophy on Friday. He also is a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award.
On Monday he was selected seventh overall by the Boston Red Sox in the 2015 MLB Draft.
When Van Horn saw the transformation in Benintendi’s physique, he couldn’t have expected the kind of year he’s had.
“It’s not like we knew that if he went and just lifted weights for eight weeks before he came back … that he was going to come back and be [this kind of hitter],” Van Horn said.
He was limited to mostly upper body workouts because of his hamstring injury. It might not have been his motivation, but the pop off the bat was a nice perk.
“When I came back from the fall and I was hitting home runs in the fall ball, I could really notice a difference,” he said.
The added power and huge jump in slugging percentage were nice (.333 slugging percentage in 2014), but that wasn’t Benintendi’s motivation for bulking up. He was admittedly worn down by season’s end a year ago and didn’t want injury to slow him down any more than it already had.
“He’s healthy this year,” Van Horn said. “Healthy and confident, a lot stronger, a year experienced.”
Van Horn said Spoon’s presence behind Benintendi in the lineup has also helped protect the slugger.
Now, Benintendi is in the CWS for the first time in his career. And it could be his last should be decide to sign with the Red Sox instead of returning to school. He plans to fly up to Boston -- a place he’s never been before -- at the conclusion of the season to get a taste of the city.
Benintendi always knew he had it in him. He just wanted so desperately to prove it on the college stage, which, along with injuries, ate away at his production as a freshman. It took him settling down, healing up and seeing the success for himself to settle him down.
“I don’t think I lacked confidence,” he said. “I knew I could do it; it was just a matter of going out and doing it. It’s been pretty satisfying.”