Cox Stands Out In A Crowd

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Arkansas third baseman Zack Cox didn't display much emotion when his 24-game hitting streak ended earlier this season.

He didn't stomp around. He didn't throw his helmet. He didn't even question an umpire's call on a close play that could have kept his streak alive. Cox simply went back to the dugout with Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler, and the two began to plot Cox's next extended hitting streak.

"Who knows? Maybe the next one will be 25?" Cox shrugged.

Not quite, though Cox did follow his 24-game hitting streak with a 14-game streak, helping him lead the Southeastern Conference in batting. In 195 at-bats, he is hitting .446/.532/.631 with eight homers and 46 RBIs. He also has 33 walks and 27 strikeouts.

The lefthanded hitter is disciplined and particularly effective at driving the ball to the opposite field. Even in his final attempt to extend his 24-game hitting streak, Cox showed his discipline by working the count to 3-0 before flying out to left.

"If you're going to hit for a high average, you have to take your walks," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "If you start chasing pitches, you'll get yourself out. Zack's not going to do that. Zack waits for something around the plate, and when he gets it, he usually hits it solid somewhere."

While Cox is just a sophomore, coaches around the SEC are plenty familiar with him. They also know what some Razorbacks fans might not realize: that Cox turned 21 in May and is eligible for the draft in June. Baseball America rates Cox as the top third baseman in this year's draft and a potential top 10 overall pick.

"Trust me, I know that," said Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard, who watched Cox bat .556 while leading the Razorbacks to a three-game sweep of the Crimson Tide in March. "When he came (to Arkansas) we were going, 'At least he's only going to be there two years.'

"Cox is one of the best players not only in this league, but in the country. We're all probably going to be watching him on TV here in about two or three years."

Cox was a highly sought after player at Pleasure Ridge Park High in Louisville, and he came to Arkansas after turning down the Dodgers, who selected him in the 20th round of the 2008 draft.

"He's as special as anyone you could be around," said Butler, who also serves as Arkansas' recruiting coordinator. "He's done a heck of a job and deserves everything that's coming his way. He works all the time, and on New Year's Eve he was hitting at midnight.

"He worked so much last year that I had to lock the cages. I thought he broke his hand from hitting so much."

Even Cox, sometimes referred to as "Arkansas' Louisville Slugger" by the public-address announcer at Baum Stadium, had an adjustment period coming out of high school. He hit .266 as a freshman with 65 strikeouts in 199 at-bats, though he hit 13 home runs and heated up during the postseason as Arkansas advanced to the College World Series.

Cox's surge started in the SEC tournament, where he made the all-tournament team and hit one of the longest home runs ever at Regions Park in suburban Birmingham. The drive hit high off the 90-foot scoreboard and helped answer critics who said Cox doesn't have enough power to play a corner infield position on the professional level.

"Baum Stadium is a pretty tough park to hit in if you're a lefthander," Butler said. "Put him in any other park and he'd have a lot more. I see Zack every day, and he has plenty of power."

Cox continued his strong play in the NCAA tournament, then spent his summer in the Cape Cod League, where he batted .344 for Cotuit, won the all-star game MVP award and finished the summer ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the league.

"Zack really took off the last third of the season," Van Horn said. "We were playing the best teams, and that's when his average jumped up. He hurt his back last January in the weight room and he didn't tell anybody because he wanted to play. He played himself back into shape, and he was pretty good for the rest of the year."

Cox is already being mentioned with other major league standouts who have played at Arkansas, including hitters like Kevin McReynolds, Tom Pagnozzi, Johnny Ray and Jeff King, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 draft.

"They're all different, but Zack is right up there with them," said Norm DeBriyn, who coached the Razorbacks for 33 years and now scouts for the Rockies. "Zack is a very disciplined hitter who really knows the strike zone. He's more advanced than most college players in that respect. He makes contact and usually hits the ball hard."

Cox posted a 5-1 record as a reliever last season, but he has been strictly a position player this season. He has improved significantly as a defender, but it's his hitting ability that makes him stand out.

Even if he doesn't act like it.

"That 24-game hitting streak was a heck of a run, but it's over with," Cox said. "There'll be other games."

Rick Fires covers Arkansas sports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock).