For many, the knuckleball is a novelty pitch. Baseball fans can tick off the names of most every knuckleball pitcher of the last 40 years, from the Niekro brothers to Tom Candiotti and Tim Wakefield.
With Wakefield retired, R.A. Dickey carries the knuckleballers’ banner, and the former Tennessee ace is the subject of the documentary, “Knuckleball!”, which premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in late April.
Dickey, like virtually every big league knuckleballer, turned to the pitch as a last resort, only after all other options for being a viable big leaguer failed. Jackson State righthander Quintavious Drains throws the knuckleball for a different reason, though.
The senior hopes the knuckleball eventually can be a consistent part of his repertoire as a change-of-pace pitch, to help him honor the memory of Darrin Brooks, his friend who introduced him to the pitch.
“I throw a fastball and curveball, with my changeup probably my favorite pitch,” Drains said. “I’ve started working in a slider and split-finger, and every once in a while, when I’m feeling good, I throw in a knuckleball.
“I picked it up when I was 12 from my best friend, and then he died in a car accident. He taught me the knuckleball, so I feel like I’ve got it and I’ve got to stick with it. Hitters are never looking for it, so if I can throw it for strikes, it messes with their head.”
Drains has gotten the better of hitters for four seasons at Jackson State. As a freshman in 2009, he posted four saves and had 53 strikeouts in 51 innings as a closer, before graduating to the rotation the next three seasons, where he’s gone 29-9 through April 22. Drains is having his best season as a senior at 9-2, 2.73, with seven complete games to lead the nation.
As detailed in last issue’s College Midseason Report, seniors are making a significant mark around the country. From Florida State’s James Ramsey to Florida’s Preston Tucker to catchers Jacob Stallings (North Carolina) and Peter O’Brien (Miami), seniors are key players on many College World Series contenders.
Jackson State isn’t an Omaha contender; a team from the Southwestern Athletic Conference hasn’t ever won a regional, much less been to the CWS. The Jaguars haven’t been to regionals since 2000, in coach Robert Braddy’s 28th and final season. But Jackson State is hoping to ride its own senior back to regionals after several recent SWAC tournament flameouts.
“We match up with the other team, so it depends on who they start as to whether he starts Friday or not,” coach Omar Johnson said of Drains. “But he’s our No. 1 guy.
“The kid does not get rattled. He’s a poker face on the mound. He pitches smart. The tighter the game, the better he gets.”
That helps explain Drains’ complete games, still one shy of the nation-best eight he threw in 2010, when his 13 victories tied him for second in the nation behind Texas Christian’s Matt Purke. Johnson first saw Drains playing shortstop in high school at the Most Valuable Prospects showcase, held at Georgia Tech’s Russ Chandler Stadium.
“You knew he was too big for short,” Johnson said, “but we could see his arm strength. Ever since he’s been here, he’s been a pitcher. He’s like any pitcher who wants to hit; we gave him an at-bat where he made some contact, and he’s never let the hitters on our team forget it.”
Drains admits he takes pleasure in hitting but knows his role on the team is to eat up innings. “We have pitch counts if we pitch midweek in relief,” he said, “but my job is to keep us in the game and give us a chance to win. That’s how I pitch.
“That’s what I practice all fall for, that’s what all our conditioning work and running is for, that’s what practice all week is for—that one game. So why not finish what I start?”
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Drains estimates he’s topped out around 160 pitches, and the workload has probably taken a toll on his draft prospects. Despite his college success, he wasn’t drafted last year and said he hasn’t had much contact with scouts this spring. One scout said he saw Drains in the fall throwing in the mid-80s and hasn’t been back this spring. Johnson said Drains touched the low 90s as a freshman out of the bullpen, but he generally pitches in the 80s as a starter. Maybe the knuckleball will be his ticket after all.
No Need For A Nickname
Like all college seniors, Drains is job seeking and would love for his first job to be in baseball. If he doesn’t get a shot at pro ball, the recreation administration major hopes to coach in the future or work with kids such as at a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club.
Chances are with a name like Quintavious Drains, his resume will be remembered. Johnson said he’s never coached a Quintavious before. Drains said his mother liked the name Quint but wanted to give it her own unique touch, and Quintavious was the choice.
“I prefer Q,” he said with a laugh. “My teachers call me Quintavious; if I’m in trouble is when I hear it. My head’s on a swivel when I hear Quintavious.”