BOWIE - For a pitcher with his background, track record and resume, it was surprising to see right-hander Blaine Knight struggle so badly at Single-A Frederick in the 2019 season.
He went 1-12 with a 6.13 ERA. Earlier that year, he was rolling for Single-A Delmarva, going 3-0 with an ERA of 0.68 in five starts. But when the Orioles moved him up, things started heading downward for Knight.
A year earlier, they had made him a third-round pick (No. 87 overall) in the 2018 draft and signed him to an overslot bonus of $1.1 million. He had gone 11-0 with a 2.74 ERA as a junior at Arkansas. He was battle-tested for sure as a two-year Friday night starter in the Southeastern Conference.
He led Arkansas to the 2018 College World Series. In Game 1 of a best-of-three series in the final, he pitched the Razorbacks past Oregon State and Adley Rutschman, allowing one run. But Rutschman’s club rallied to win the next two games to take the national championship.
But after Knight rolled through his college years and blew through the South Atlantic League, it came crashing down when he joined the Frederick Keys in 2019.
It got so bad that he said he would almost panic on the mound, trying to throw anything at any time to find some way to get hitters out. But the struggles kept going.
But Knight’s career has taken a turn for the better, and this season, he once again looks like the pitcher the Orioles saw at Arkansas.
He’s throwing a four-pitch mix with a fastball that often is at 93 and 94 mph and has touched 97 mph, just as he did in college. His slider is still his favored secondary pitch, but he said his curveball is a close second. And he has begun to throw more changeups, even learning to throw right-on-right off-speed pitches. He holds his velocity throughout his starts.
Knight pitched well to start this year at high Single-A Aberdeen and kept it going when he was bumped up to Double-A Bowie.
But, man, thinking back to 2019 now reminds him of how rough it got and what he did to change that. He enlisted the help of his former college catcher from Arkansas during the 2020 season, when there were no minor league games.
“It was weird. Was almost like no matter what I did, I couldn’t do anything right,” Knight said recently at Bowie’s Prince George’s Stadium. “I tried to do way too much because I hit a lot of adversity, and I was trying to just throw something at the wall and hope it stuck to get out of it. It ended up my walks doubled, strikeouts went way down. I was leaving stuff too much over the plate and I got hit. It was just a slump and I couldn’t get out of it no matter what I did.
“In spring training 2020, I still didn’t feel right. Then the season got canceled. But I was able to go home and with consequence-free reps and really focus on what I had done well in the past to make me successful and what I was really good at and did well. I spent the whole COVID season getting back to what I do really well.
“I started this year at (high Single-A) Aberdeen and got with (IronBirds pitching coach) Josh Conway and was able to get a lot of really good work in there on some stuff I was able to fine-tune that I hadn’t got quite back yet. Got lucky enough to come here to Bowie to work with (pitching coach Justin) Ramsey again, who I have always worked well with. We are finishing out on fine-tuning some stuff. Hard work is starting to pay off and I’m glad to see it.”
Before he gave up six runs in 1 1/3 innings two outings ago, Knight had a 2.12 ERA with the Baysox. Last night he pitched in relief, in a piggyback situation and threw four scoreless with seven strikeouts against Hartford.
Now he is 2-2 with a 3.34 ERA through eight games after beginning the season with an ERA of 2.41 at Aberdeen in four starts. In 35 innings with Bowie, he has allowed 25 hits with 11 walks, 39 strikeouts, a 1.03 WHIP and a .203 batting average against.
Knight would drive three hours during the summer of 2020 from Little Rock to Fayetteville, Ark., and throw to his college catcher, Pirates prospect Grant Koch. Koch provided some insight that would help Knight turn his career around this year.
“He caught me for a long time, and he pointed out some stuff I was doing wrong that I’d never done before. It was good,” Knight said. “To be able to be home, connect with him and get back on the right track. I started to do stuff I had never done before in Frederick to try and get through outings.
“My delivery changed, my mechanics changed, a lot of stuff changed. I can look at video all I want and see it. But he pointed out just how wide open I was. I wasn’t finishing through anything, I was spinning off everything. I went from being a very rotational guy in college and my first pro year to I was really linear to the plate and not getting any rotation. Stuff I could harp on and adjust back to.”
Even though Knight felt real good about those bullpen sessions with Koch, who was a fifth-round pick in 2018 and is now in high-A ball, he would need the hitters to tell him he had truly gotten back on track.
“I felt good, but I was still really skeptical coming in (to this season),” Knight said. “Because I hadn’t faced hitters in such a long time that I didn’t know what it would look like. I felt better than I did in Frederick, but there was still the unknown of, ‘What’s going to happen when a guy gets in the box?’ Especially coming off a year where I had in ‘19 where I was just trying to avoid getting hit rather than just pitching. But seeing hitters would be the real test. So far, so good.”
Knight recorded an 0.80 WHIP in those first four starts with the IronBirds and the hitters were indeed helping to tell him he was back on track.
After going through a miserable second half two years ago, he now feels he has a framework to handle any future struggles on the mound.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And I think it will pay off in the long run, too. Facing adversity, I could just wear it and keep going and what happens, happens. Or I could eventually make it stop and go the other direction. Having gone through that, now adversity is a little easier to overcome.”