Blaine Knight Pitches Arkansas To Precipice Of National Championshp
OMAHA, Neb.—Dave Van Horn last year thought Blaine Knight’s Arkansas career was over. Knight was a draft-eligible sophomore who had been one of the breakout prospects of the spring, climbing draft boards as he proved himself in the Razorbacks’ rotation.
But following Arkansas’ season-ending loss to Missouri State in regionals, a week before the draft, Knight told Van Horn in his exit interview that he wouldn’t budge on the signing bonus he wanted and that if no team would meet his number, he would return to school. In the end, that was what happened. Knight was eventually picked in the 29th round by the Rangers, but by then, the righthander had made up his mind to return to school. He and his teammates had unfinished business.
“I’ve accomplished a lot of goals in my short time here, but I have plenty more that still need to be accomplished,” Knight wrote in an essay published on Arkansas’ website. “Everyone has told me a trip to Omaha is an experience like no other. I plan on achieving that goal next season and bringing the rest of this state with me.”
Knight and the Razorbacks did just that. Knight earned All-America honors and helped Arkansas roll through both the Fayetteville Regional and Super Regional to return to the College World Series for the first time since 2015. He won his first start in Omaha, beating Texas, and Arkansas swept through its bracket to a final matchup with Oregon State.
Knight took the mound Tuesday in Game 1 of the CWS finals and it felt like the rest of Arkansas was with him in TD Ameritrade Park. In front of a crowd of 25,231 fans, most of whom were wearing Arkansas red and calling the hogs, Knight delivered a strong start and Arkansas defeated Oregon State, 4-1, to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series.
It was the kind of night Knight came back to school for. And while he hasn’t thought much this season about his essay, he hasn’t been able to avoid it much the last two weeks.
“The one thing I can say about that is I was sincere when I wrote it,” he said. “I knew what we had coming back, I knew what drive we were going to have.”
That drive has led the Razorbacks to the precipice of the first national championship in program history. They got there Tuesday thanks in large part to their pitching, led by their ace. It was a quintessential start from Knight. His fastball sat in the low 90s, touched 95 mph, and he commanded it well. He scattered seven hits, walked just one batter, struck out six and held Oregon State’s potent offense to one run over six innings. Every time he got himself into trouble, he got himself out of the jam. Knight became the first pitcher to throw a quality start against Oregon State in the postseason.
The key, pitching coach Wes Johnson said, was Knight’s fastball command. Leading up to his start Tuesday, Knight and Johnson had heavily worked on his fastball. He eschewed his changeup against Oregon State, relying almost solely on his fastball-slider combination to great effect.
“I challenged him after his last start here against Texas,” Johnson said. “If you look at tonight, the reason he competed so well is he had his fastball command back and he was able to locate it and there was times he was able to ramp it up.”
After six innings, Van Horn turned the ball over to setup man Barrett Loseke, who struck out three batters and scattered two hits in two scoreless innings. Closer Matt Cronin retired the final three batters of the game to finish off the victory.
Before Tuesday, Oregon State was averaging 9.7 runs per game in the postseason. But the trio of Razorbacks kept the Beavers offense from ever finding its stride. Oregon State scored its lone run in the second inning when Michael Gretler’s RBI single brought home Trevor Larnach, who led off the inning with a double. Knight responded by striking out the next two hitters to end the inning.
The Beavers only got two more runners into scoring position the rest of the game and both times had runners on the corners against Knight. In the fourth inning, Knight escaped the jam thanks to an interference call that completed a double play and then whiffed Gretler to end the inning. The next inning, he got Nick Madrigal, the fourth overall draft pick, to line out to end the inning.
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In between the jams, Arkansas got four runs of their own, giving Knight a lead he wasn’t going to surrender. He improved Tuesday to 14-0, 2.80 with 102 strikeouts and 25 walks in 112.1 innings. He set the program record for most wins in a season in his final appearance for the Razorbacks.
“He’ll go down as the best competitor I’ve ever coached,” Johnson said. “The young man goes 14-0, breaks the school record tonight.
“Blaine Knight’s the ultimate competitor.”
Knight, true to his nature, was happier for Cronin, who set the program’s single-season saves record, than he was about his own record.
“The school record thing, that’s huge for Cronin and I’m happy with it, too,” he said. “It’s been a long year. It’s been a fun year, though, and it just shows that hard work pays off.”
All three of Arkansas’ pitchers Tuesday put in a lot of work over the last year to get to this stage. Knight and Cronin have both worked hard on their conditioning to improve their velocity and hold it better over the course of the season. Loseke started the season slowly but emerged in the second half as a critical piece of the bullpen and has been a strong bridge to Cronin at the end of games.
To be able to call on Loseke and Cronin to finish games has been a luxury for Van Horn down the stretch.
“Having those two guys to pick up the slack in the middle and then the end of the game, it does finish off a lot of wins,” Van Horn said.
Arkansas only needs one more victory now. The Razorbacks said they weren’t going to get ahead of themselves after winning Game 1 and understand they still must finish the series against a very dangerous opponent.
Tuesday was a night they’ll remember for a long time, however. When Knight came off the mound after the sixth inning, Van Horn embraced him in the dugout. Knight simply told his coach, “Thank you.”
It what was likely Knight’s final college appearance, he showed just how much he has meant to the Razorbacks. But he saw it another way. He’ll remember this night for his team—the team and the goal for which he this season came back to Arkansas.
“Without this team I wouldn’t have won the game,” Knight said. “This team is incredible, and I’ll never be able to replace them in a million years. I love every single one of these guys and they have my back and I have theirs. I can’t appreciate them enough.”