FAYETTEVILLE — Outfielder Matt Vinson won’t forget the conversation he had with Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn a year ago. It was critical to his recent success.
Starting center fielder Jacob Morris had broken his thumb trying to lay down a bunt in the team’s final home game against Auburn. He was going to be out for the rest of the year. So Van Horn turned to Vinson to let the junior know the Razorbacks were counting on him to become an everyday player as they moved into postseason play.
"Coach Van Horn told me you’re our center fielder for the rest of the season," Vinson said earlier this week "It was everything to me. I got my confidence up. I felt like I knew I could do it. … Just knowing I’m in the lineup every day and not having to look at that lineup card when I come to the field, that was a big thing for me."
Vinson took advantage of the opportunity, starting Arkansas’ final 16 games during its run through the NCAA Tournament. He has rarely left the lineup since. The former Alma standout — who was elected one of the team’s three captains before the 2013 season — continues to hold down a starting spot in Arkansas outfield.
Vinson has started 47 of 51 games and has been a regular at the top of the Arkansas batting order. He entered the season with a .214 career batting average, but ranks second on the team this season (.300) and continues to be a steady defensive player whether he’s in center field or left field (.968 fielding percentage).
Vinson will in the lineup again tonight, when the 11th-ranked Razorbacks (34-17, 17-9 in SEC) open their final regular season series at Auburn (31-20, 11-16 in SEC) with NCAA Regional implications on the line. Arkansas will lock up the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament with one win this weekend, while a series victory would bolster the Razorbacks’ resume as it tries to land a spot as an NCAA Regional host.
"This year he showed up to the field knowing that he was going to be in the lineup," Arkansas first baseman Dominic Ficociello said of Vinson’s success. "That took a lot of pressure off of him. He knew it. He knew that he could just show up and play.
"He’s worked his butt off because he knows this is his last year. This is his last chance to make an impression with scouts and last chance to win a national championship. He’s taken it seriously and he has had one hell of a year."
Vinson is the first to realize the success came in large part to last season.
Van Horn agreed, saying Vinson’s efforts in the starting role were important.
Vinson was batting just .169 (11 of 65) when he became the full-time starter last season. He hit a respectable .272 (15 of 55) the rest of the way, providing Arkansas with some much-needed help at the bottom of the lineup the final 16 games.
It included a two-run double in the College World Series opener against Kent State, which helped the Razorbacks secure an 8-1 win. Vinson drove in another run with a two-out single in the next game, helping Arkansas stay in the winner’s bracket with a 2-1 win against South Carolina. He had one hit in each College World Series game.
"We told Vinson, ‘You are the option. You are the guy now. You have to start all the way through in some very tense games in some tough atmospheres,’" Van Horn said about his conversation last year. "He got a big hit or two in Omaha and he made most of the playing time. I can’t remember making him not making a play that was makeable. I think obviously the confidence has carried over."
Vinson has divided his time between left field and center field this season, working in the middle of the defense when Morris hasn’t started. But he has been in center field in eight straight games, playing a big part in Arkansas’ late-season push.
It included Sunday’s home finale against Tennessee. Vinson, who was one of six seniors honored, clubbed his second home run of the season in the series-clinching 10-2 win. He had three hits, drove in two runs and scored three times.
Vinson now ranks second on the team with 13 extra base hits this season. He has two home runs, three triples and eight doubles among his career-best 54 hits.
"A lot of it had to do with (hitting) coach (Todd) Butler," Vinson said of his improvement at the plate. "I trust him. If he tells me to do something, I kind of do it. I just trust him and his philosophy. I feel more confident. But at the same time I stopped caring so much, which is kind of hard to explain in baseball. You have to to have success at the plate – just not care as much. That’s kind of what it was."
Vinson hopes the approach continues to help him enjoy success at the plate for one reason: He cares about Arkansas’ success the rest of his senior season.
Vinson said the CWS experience was the highlight of his career to date, but wants to help lead the Razorbacks back to Omaha one more time before moving on to potential opportunities in pro baseball. No one doubts Vinson – who has played well since being pushed into the lineup as a regular last season – will play a big role.
"The next level would be nice, but honestly it’s all for the team," Vinson said. "I want to do everything I can to help us win. I really want to get back to Omaha. Not just for myself but I want the younger guys to get a chance. I got to go last year and it was a once in a lifetime experience. I want them to experience the same thing."
No. 11 Arkansas (34-17, 17-9 in SEC) at Auburn (31-20, 11-16 in SEC)
When: Tonight at 6 p.m., Friday at 6 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m.
Where: Plainsman Park in Auburn, Ala.
TV: Saturday – Cox Sports Television
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Starting Pitchers: Arkansas — RHP Barrett Astin (4-3, 2.21 ERA), RHP Ryne Stanek (7-2, 1.70 ERA); LHP Randall Fant (5-1, 2.00 ERA); Auburn — LHP Conner Kendrick (4-3, 2.25 ERA), LHP Michael O’Neal (8-3, 2.85 ERA), To be determined
Top Hitters: Arkansas —Brian Anderson (.339, 4 HR, 33 RBI), Matt Vinson (.300, 2 HR, 22 RBI), Jacob Mahan (.297, 2 HR, 20 RBI), Tyler Spoon (.286, 4 HR, 43 RBI); Auburn — Garrett Cooper (.364, 7 HR, 35 RBI), Cullen Wacker (.326, 2 HR, 34 RBI), Jordan Ebert (.302, 3 HR, 18 RBI), Blake Austin (.291, 3 HR, 20 RBI)