FAYETTEVILLE — Before this Arkansas baseball season began everybody knew about the Razorbacks’ amazing up-the-middle defense short one spot.
Shortstop stopped short on previous Arkansas experience.
Catcher Casey Opitz and center fielder Christian Franklin, starters on Arkansas’ 2019 College World Series team, and second baseman Robert Moore, proving himself as a 17-year-old phenom during the mid-March COVID ended 2020 campaign, all returned.
But at short mainstay Casey Martin had moved on, a Philadelphia Phillies’ third-round draft choice.
So Razorbacks fans began the season not knowing Jalen Battles, the junior college transfer via San Antonio and McLennan Community College.
They know him now as the SEC Tournament MVP as SEC Tournament champion Arkansas heads into the four-team, double-elimination Fayetteville Regional that Arkansas hosts starting Friday at Baum-Walker Stadium.
Before that they knew Battles for his part in helping the Razorbacks win the SEC regular season championship and establish themselves the undisputed No. 1 team in the country.
“He’s been amazing all year,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “If you look at his defensive numbers, (.960 fielding percentage) they’re as good as any shortstop in the country. That is a premier position. It’s very hard to play. You have a lot of things to take care of there.”
Just performing what’s called routine makes a shortstop supreme.
“If you bobble the ball, it’s hard to throw somebody out,” Van Horn said.
Battles goes way beyond the routine.
His fourth-inning diving stop and from a sitting position force out throw to Moore indelibly stamped last Sunday’s SEC Tournament championship game victory over Tennessee in Hoover, Alabama.
The Hogs trailed, 1-0 as Battles defensively wowed all.
They won 7-2 starting on a three-run fifth with Battles driving home the first run.
“It changed the whole entire game,“ Arkansas first baseman Cullen Smith said. “No doubt about that. We came into the dugout screaming and fired up, the most hyped we’d been the entire game. As a momentum standpoint it was humongous.”
Humongous yet not surprising, Smith said.
“If another shortstop did that, it would surprise me,” Smith said. “But Jalen Battles, absolutely not. The dude is an absolute big leaguer at shortstop, and he’s been making plays like that all year. It’s not surprising. That’s what he does, man. That’s why we’re as good as we are.”
And while Battles’ .265 batting average may seem ordinary, ask Tennessee and Ole Miss how it can impact extraordinarily.
Battles went 3 for 4 Sunday against Tennessee with a mammoth home run in the eighth finishing what his RBI single started in the fifth.
He doubled home the game-winner after Smith’s two-run home run while going 2 for 3 in last Saturday’s 3-2 SEC Tourney semifinal over Ole Miss.
“I’ve seen him really make improvement and strides with the bat,” Van Horn said, citing hitting coach Nate Thompson and Bobby Wernes, the grad assistant and former Razorbacks third baseman. “I think coach Thompson and Bobby Wernes, and all of them, they’ve all done a great job working with him. He listens. He’s very coachable.”
The bat, Battles knows, comes and goes.
“For me, I felt it started out pretty well and then it kind of went away,” Battles said. “Toward the end it got better. It’s just taking one at bat at a time and just really lock in.”
Defensively they expect he’ll lock all that comes near and pretty far, too.
“The defense has been off the charts,” Van Horn said. “That’s what stands out to me.”