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Not bad, Chad: Hitting display long anticipated

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Photographs by Andy Shupe

Arkansas first baseman Chad Spanberger bats during a game against Georgia on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Fayetteville.

Arkansas Razorbacks Coach Dave Van Horn said he didn't know exactly how far Chad Spanberger's home run traveled out of Dickey-Stephens Park on Wednesday night.

"We couldn't tell where it ended up," Van Horn said. "I just knew when it left the bat, 'I said, it's 2-0.' I didn't even watch it.

"When he hits them, they usually go a long way. When he mishits them, sometimes they have a chance to get out if he gets the barrel to it."

Spanberger's ninth home run -- with Jax Biggers on base -- on a 1-2 pitch from Alex Hicks provided all the runs the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville needed in a 2-0 victory over Memphis on Wednesday in North Little Rock.

"He threw me a fastball in," Spanberger said. "I think it leaked over the plate a little bit and I put a pretty good swing on it."

Spanberger, a junior from Granite City, Ill. who bats left-handed, has been putting together good swings for a month.

In 17 games since Arkansas' second SEC series at Missouri on March 21, Spanberger is batting .413 (31 for 75) with 6 home runs, 5 doubles, 1 triple and 32 runs batted in and 20 runs.

"It's incredible," second baseman Carson Shaddy said. "You can't throw him anything that he's not hitting.

"He's just finally figuring out that he can do this and he's having confidence in himself and it's awesome."

Spanberger has a 12-game hitting streak heading into No. 14 Arkansas' three-game series at No. 12 Auburn.

First pitch is scheduled for 6 tonight at Plainsman Park in Auburn, Ala.

"The past two years and the beginning of this year was really stressful," Spanberger said. "You know you can do it, and it's just nice and a relief to know you're doing it."

Spanberger is hitting .314 after being at .194 (12 for 62) entering the Missouri series. He has 9 home runs, 43 RBI and 33 runs with 14 walks for the season.

He batted .252 with 21 RBI without a home run in 42 games as a freshman, then last season hit 6 home runs, but batted .225 with 17 RBI in 33 games last season.

Van Horn said he expected a strong start from Spanberger this season after he batted .316 with 11 home runs and 43 RBI in 40 games last summer and made the California Collegiate League All-Star Game playing for the Conejo Oaks.

"He had a great summer hitting with a wood bat against some pretty good arms," Van Horn said. "We were excited about that and we were thinking, 'Hey, he's turned the corner.'

"Then he came in the fall and picked it right up. Our pitchers didn't like throwing to him at all. Then he just got off to a bad start, was in his own head, trying to do too much."

Van Horn said Spanberger took coaching well and started hitting more consistently. He also benefited from Van Horn's decision to start batting him second in the order after he hit seventh or eighth earlier in the season.

Spanberger batted second for the first time in Arkansas' March 4 game against Nebraska in Frisco, Texas.

"Somebody said, 'You're in the 2-hole,' and I said, 'No, you're lying,' " Spanberger said. "It was a surprise."

Spanberger was 0 for 5 against Nebraska, but said he's gradually become comfortable batting second.

Van Horn said he decided to bat Spanberger second because he'd likely get better pitches with Luke Bonfield -- at .320 with 7 home runs and 37 RBI -- batting third.

Spanberger has been so hot lately that some teams have walked him to get to Bonfield.

"It helps guys behind him in the lineup, guys in front of him in the lineup," Bonfield said. "Everyone knew he had it in him. He's starting to get it going. I think we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg with him. There's a lot more to come."

The Razorbacks (31-8) are 21-5 with Spanberger hitting second -- including 11-4 in SEC play to lead the conference.

"Obviously, it looks kind of weird," Shaddy said of Spanberger, 6-3 and 240 pounds, hitting in a lineup spot traditionally reserved for players known for moving base runners. "But you look at what all the major league teams are doing right now and there's a power hitter in the 2-hole.

"It makes a lot of sense why he's there, and he's shown that."

Spanberger is batting .318 against left-handers (14 for 44) and .312 against right-handers (29 for 93). He's been his most dangerous (.351) with runners in scoring position.

"I think he has power to all fields, and when a college player has power the other way that impresses a coach," Auburn Coach Butch Thompson said. "I think if you just go with one simple plan or one side of the plate to get somebody out, I think he's too advanced for that and swinging it too good for that.

"Each one of our pitchers will probably have their own plan instead of a uniform plan, but we'll have to do a good job and make some pitches."

Eight of Spanberger's 16 extra-base hits have been to center or left field, including two home runs to left against Georgia, home runs to center and right-center against LSU, a double off the left field wall at Missouri State and a triple to center against Grand Canyon.

"They're going to throw him a lot away, and now he knows how to hit balls out of the park away," Bonfield said. "He's just crushing them the opposite way. It's big-league stuff right there."

Spanberger said hitting to all fields has been a point of emphasis in practice with hitting coach Tony Vitello.

"It's really about changing your approach a little bit, your mindset," he said. "Coming out and working in practice, working before the game, getting a good scouting report from the coaches.

"Trusting yourself to go the other way, up the middle. Don't worry about, 'Oh, I have to pull it to hit the ball out.' If you hit it well the other way, it'll still go."

Van Horn said Spanberger is continuing to impress professional scouts with the power to hit the ball out of any ballpark.

"Chad was going to get a chance to play at the next level anyway," Van Horn said. "But now teams are going to have to draft him higher than maybe they thought, and that's good for him and his family."

Matt Jones of wholehogsports.com contributed information for this story

Sports on 04/21/2017

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