ABERDEEN, Md. - He has pitched in big-time Southeastern Conference college games on Friday nights for two years. Those are high-intensity, high-pressure games in the top college league in the country. A lot is riding on every pitch. In the college game, Friday night starters are the aces for each club, and their rabid fans expect them to win.
University of Arkansas right-hander Blaine Knight seemed to thrive in that pressure cooker. He pitched well enough this year to lead Arkansas to the College World Series finals. The Razorbacks lost to Oregon State, but not before Knight pitched them to a Game 1 win in a best-of-three series, allowing just one run versus the eventual national champion.
On June 5, even before the CWS, the Orioles selected Knight with the No. 87 overall pick in the third round of the draft. With less than two hours to go before the signing deadline on July 6, the Orioles and Knight agreed to a signing bonus of $1.1 million, well over the slot amount of $663,200 for the 87th selection.
Knight took a few weeks off after his very long collegiate season and then reported to Sarasota, Fla. to throw some bullpens and build his arm strength back up in advance of his first professional outing. That came last Friday night for short-season Single-A Aberdeen. Over 1 1/3 innings, Knight allowed five hits and one run on 29 pitches.
After a heavy innings load this season for the Razorbacks, Knight will make just four starts for Aberdeen, pitching every Friday night. For now, he’ll keep the same schedule he had at Arkansas.
Even with all the success Knight had in those high-pressure SEC games, he did have some butterflies when he took the mound for his pro debut.
“I was probably a little too amped up,” he said. “First time on the mound since Omaha (in the College World Series in June). I think that created some issues about controlling my intensity level. Had some fastballs leak over the middle of the plate, but it was a fun experience. One I will remember for a long time.”
Now back to Knight’s college season. The 22-year-old right-hander went 14-0 with a 2.80 ERA. In 112 1/3 innings he walked 25, fanned 102 and allowed a .230 batting average. He went 4-0 with a 2.88 ERA in the NCAA tournament and 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA in the College World Series.
Six SEC Friday night starters went in the draft’s first 87 picks, and Knight was the last of them. But he outpitched each of the others when they met, going 3-0 with a 3.38 ERA and allowing fewer runs than the opposing starter.
On April 6, Knight allowed one run in 6 1/3 innings in a matchup versus Auburn’s Casey Mize, who gave up two runs in seven innings. Arkansas won 2-1 against Mize, who was taken with the No. 1 overall pick by the Detroit Tigers. Knight also outpitched Florida’s Brady Singer (taken No. 18 by the Kansas City Royals), Ryan Rolison of Ole Miss (taken No. 22 by the Colorado Rockies), Kentucky’s Sean Hjelle (taken No. 45 by the San Francisco Giants) and Mississippi State’s Konnor Pilkington (taken No. 81 by the Chicago White Sox).
Knight learned to pitch well amid the pressure and sky-high expectations.
“I think it helps out a lot,” Knight said. “It is the No. 1 league in the nation. Every Friday night I threw the last two years were some of the most stressful innings I’ve ever thrown. You are hooking up with Casey Mize and Brady Singer and the Rolisons and all of those guys. You make a mistake and you get punished for it. You know in the back of your mind the other guy won’t give up a whole lot. Every pitch was stressful, but you have to stay locked in and execute. If anything, it taught me not to give in ever.”
By the way, Arkansas went 4-1 in those games in which Knight would face a pitcher that would later be drafted ahead of him.
“It wasn’t on account of me. I did what I was supposed to do as a pitcher. Keep the other team close or tied with us and let my team do the rest. We had an extremely good offense and defense that I owe a lot to,” he said.
Knight added that he learned more and more each season about how to handle pitching in the big games.
“It was maturity. I started on the weekends all three years at Arkansas. My freshman year you would have seen me not completely control myself. Sophomore year was better, and I got thrown into the fire then as a Friday starter. There was a lot I learned those first two years, and when I got to this year I had already been through everything there was in that league. Nothing shocked me anymore. If you are going to have success in the SEC you’ve got to be pretty mature,” he added.
The scouting report on Knight has his fastball sitting between 90 and 94 mph, touching 96 and 97. He has a plus slider along with a curve he added for this season and a changeup he hardly needed to throw in college. His spin rates on his breaking pitches were among the best in the college game, helping to create some nice late break on that slider. Knight used his breaking balls often in SEC games versus power hitters and good lineups that were using aluminum bats. In pro ball, pitchers use their fastballs to set up their secondary pitches. For Knight, there was a lot of pitching backwards, as they call it, in the SEC.
When Knight made that first pro start last Friday, he threw a lot of breaking balls and not as many fastballs as he will need to eventually throw. He pitched more like he did this year at Arkansas and is very aware that he will need to make the adjustment going forward.
“Me and Mark (Hendrickson, Aberdeen pitching coach) talked the other night. I can throw a mid-90s fastball, and I need to use my fastball a lot more. That is something I’m going to work on. In the SEC, I had to throw a lot of offspeed because everyone had seen me for three years. I got ambushed (on fastballs) a lot. So I had to use breaking balls often. I need to use the fastball a lot more to be a dominant starter in professional baseball. I know everything will play off that fastball.”
Knight will miss instructional league this fall as he heads back to Arkansas to pursue his degree. He is 15 credits short of graduating. The 2018 season has been one to remember for him. He was the best pitcher on one of the best teams in the nation, and now he’s getting his feet wet in pro ball.