Knight Cements Special Place In Arkansas LoreColumns
OMAHA — As Blaine Knight returned to the dugout at the end of the sixth inning Tuesday night, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn wrapped his ace in a warm bearhug and delivered a short, heartfelt message: “Thank you.”
“It was pretty simple. He knew exactly what I meant,” Van Horn said.
It is pretty simple. When this postseason ride is over, Knight is likely go down as one of the most important and most beloved Razorbacks in the proud history of the program. His performance in Arkansas’ 4-1 win over Oregon State in the opener of the CWS Finals cemented his exalted place in Arkansas lore.
It was classic Blaine Knight — a workmanlike, rock-solid performance against an elite offensive opponent. Luke Heimlich out-pitched Knight for four innings, and when it was all over Oregon State had out-hit Arkansas 9-5 — but it was Knight and the Hogs who were celebrating the victory.
Matched up against Heimlich, a pitcher with the best numbers in college baseball over the last two seasons, the man they call “Big Game Blaine” simply found a way to win, as he has done against four first-round opposing pitchers during his magical junior season. The wins against Casey Mize, Brady Singer, Ryan Rolison and Jackson Kowar were loud — but the win against Heimlich and the Beavers was loudest of all, given the incredible stakes.
So what makes Knight so good when the spotlight is the brightest?
“First off, I think it’s his competitive nature. He never gives an inch on the mound. He’s thrown any pitch in any situation, and obviously has amazing stuff,” Arkansas catcher Grant Koch said. “Obviously the talent is there, but what separates Blaine is his mentality, his work ethic. So many things go into it. He’s absolutely one of the best pitchers I’ve ever seen and I’ve ever caught. But I think it’s his mindset that sets him apart from a lot of people. You want that guy on the mound and you’re going to fight for that guy on defense. We know that’s what the team feels, and we know he’s going to give us a quality start no matter what, so it’s huge.”
The win improved Knight to 14-0 on the season, breaking the school’s single-season wins record. He will also be the first pitcher to finish a season 14-0 since 2002. The 14th win felt a lot like many of the previous 13: he commanded the zone, pitched to contact and competed. He didn’t try to strike everybody out, but he got some big swings-and-misses when he needed them, none bigger than back-to-back Ks on explosive fastballs in the second inning, stranding a pair of OSU baserunners after the Beavers had taken a 1-0 lead in the frame. He finished with seven strikeouts over six innings of one-run ball, scattering seven hits. Knight still has less than a strikeout per inning on the season (103 K in 112.1 IP), but he is the very picture of consistency, having allowed two or fewer earned runs 13 times in 19 starts this year.
“Having a guy like him that you can put out there every Friday or whatever, first game of the series, whether we started on Friday or Thursday, he just — he gave us innings, and he saved our bullpen,” Van Horn said. “He got a couple no-decisions, got a lot of wins, and just a lot of stability. I appreciate him coming back this year (after being drafted as an eligible sophomore in 2017). He felt like at the end of last year he was very tired. He had lost a lot of weight. He just felt like he needed another year. Obviously I feel like it was a good decision, but just for him to go out into professional baseball, I feel like he’ll have a lot better success now than he would have last year.
“But you know, it was kind of surreal knowing that that was the last time he’s going to probably step on the mound for us. I mean, it is.”
But Knight made his last Arkansas appearance count. He got a little help in the fourth inning, when the Beavers were threatening to add to their 1-0 lead, with runners on the corners and nobody out. Tyler Malone hit a ground ball to first baseman Jared Gates, who threw to second for the force out, and OSU’s Adley Rutschman was called for interference on the relay throw back to first, because he stayed in the base line and did not slide or veer off to the right, out of the throwing lane. Instead Rutschman ducked a little, but that wasn’t enough to avoid the interference call — resulting in a double play and forcing Trevor Larnach to return to third base, taking the run he had just appeared to score off the board. NCAA officials cited rule 8-4a, which says in part that “a runner need not slide directly into the base as long as the runner slides or runs in a direction away from the fielder to avoid contact or altering the play of the fielder.”
It was a big call — and probably the right call, though Oregon State coach Pat Casey made it clear that he disagreed with it. But the Beavers still had a man at third base with two outs, and they still had a 1-0 lead. And Knight deserves credit for striking out Michael Gretler on a good slider to strand Larnach at third and get out of that jam.
“As far as the interference call, I think it was a little bit of a momentum shifter, especially for us, and still on defense, that gave me a little drive to want to get out of the inning without something happening,” Knight said. “It gave me a little boost. And then offensively we started putting some good at-bats together after that, so I think it played out in our favor.”
Indeed, Arkansas took control of the game the very next half inning, scoring four runs on just two hits, as Heimlich suddenly lost his command of his slider, hitting two Arkansas batters with the pitch. After breezing through four innings and allowing just one hit, Heimlich just lost it, starting with a one-out walk to Carson Shaddy, which was followed by back-to-back singles by Jared Gates and Koch to tie the score at 1-1. But Heimlich could not pitch his way out of trouble and minimize the damage the way Knight did; instead he hit Jax Biggers, then hit Eric Cole to force in a run, then allowed another run on a fielder’s choice that Nick Madrigal also misplayed into an error, just his second of the season. That was Heimlich’s final batter of the night; he exited with a 10.61 ERA in three CWS starts.
“He started to lose it,” Casey said. “He didn’t throw the ball where he needed to, and it kind of … I don’t know, I don’t have an answer for that. He’d been real good all year long, and certainly really struggled in that inning.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing for Knight after that — it’s never easy to subdue that explosive Oregon State lineup for long — but he was able to pitch out of trouble again in the fifth, avoiding a meltdown inning like the one that doomed Heimlich and OSU. The Beavers had men at the corners with two outs after instant replay overturned a foul call on a Cadyn Grenier shot down the right-field line, but Knight once again stranded the two baserunners, getting the dangerous Madrigal to line out softly to second base. Knight stranded one more OSU baserunner in the sixth before handing off to bullpen dynamos Barrett Loseke and Matt Cronin, who combined to work three scoreless innings to close it out.
The Beavers had their share of chances against Knight, but he was able to keep them from stringing together one of the big innings that have carried them in the CWS. He got some good fortune, and he made some big pitches.
“The key was just trying to keep them from sitting pitches because that’s what they like to do a lot,” Knight said. “They like to sit pitches in certain counts. They’re a really good team. They put good swings on balls. They battled, tried to drive up my pitch count, and I was able to execute pitches when the jams came along and just get out of them.”
And that’s Blaine Knight, in a nutshell. He executes, he minimizes, he battles — and he wins. He just wins.