FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Tall drink of water. Lanky. Rail thin. Whatever you think of Blaine Knight’s build, you can use various adjectives or adjective phrases to describe him. At 6-foot-3, 165 pounds, “hefty” isn’t one of them.
Then there are the words to describe his game:
The last one is a favorite this season. Knight, the Arkansas baseball team’s Friday starter and ace, has been nothing short of extraordinary. The sophomore has taken a leap from part-time starter in 2016 on a last-place team to full-fledged star on a first-place one. And in less than a year.
Heading into the Diamond Hogs’ weekend series with LSU at Baum Stadium (starting tonight at 6:30), Knight is among the SEC’s top 10 in earned run average, batting average-against and strikeouts. He leads the conference in strikeout-to-walk ratio, having sat down 48 and given free passes to just 2.
If you’re not a huge baseball fan and just a fan of Arkansas sports, let’s just say that’s an absurd ratio. A typical excellent one usually lands somewhere around 4 to 1. Knight’s is 24 to 1.
Just for a side-by-side comparison, these are Knight’s lines in 2016 and 2017.
- 2016: 48 1/3 innings, 2.98 ERA, .294 opponents batting average, 46 strikeouts, 14 walks
- 2017: 40 1/3 innings, 2.23 ERA, .197 opponents’ batting average, 48 strikeouts, 2 walks
“Everything’s kind of meshed together,” Knight said. “It’s turned out to be a good year. Working on basic stuff, keeping command under control. I start doing too much, that’s when stuff starts going sideways.”
The Arkansas turnaround
It’s hardly been Knight alone to key Arkansas’ turn from worst to first and he is quick to bestow compliments to his teammates. But coach Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks team won seven games all season in SEC play in 2016. Seven wins in 30 games (7-23). In 2017, the Diamond Hogs have seven wins in nine games (7-2). They sit tied atop atop the SEC West, are ranked in every major poll in the country and Baseball America currently has Arkansas projected to host an NCAA Tournament regional.
All that is getting ahead of things, though, Knight cautions. Given what the team went through last season, he and teammates aren’t terribly interested in looking too far ahead. The old “one game at a time” speak and all that.
Speaking of which, the next game — or batch of games, rather — are legit to that cliché. Arkansas-LSU has been a staple of contention in the battle for SEC West supremacy for a good 15 years now. The Tigers’ sweep last season and the madness that was part of it (opossum, anyone?) lingers. And Knight gets the first stab at revenge on Friday night.
The Knight turnaround
He credits a good chunk of his new fortune to new Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson. Johnson was hired after longtime Razorbacks pitching coach Dave Jorn decided to retire. Jorn was an icon, but Johnson brings a different element.
“Just coach Johnson, really,” Knight said. “A lot of it is the workouts. We do a lot of strength training. You can definitely tell a difference.”
Even if you can’t see it. Not on Knight, anyway. He’s put on a few pounds since arriving to campus nearly two calendar years ago, but he’s still somewhat … angular. Knight figures, and his coaches have suggested, a weight of about 180 pounds or so would be best. Getting there would not only give him a touch more velocity on his 94 mile-an-hour fastball, but it would help keep him healthier long term.
After all, there was another Saline County, Ark., native who was seen as tall and skinny when he was Knight’s age, too. With a Cy Young Award under his belt, things turned out fine for Cliff Lee.
The question is, how long is long term? Knight is eligible for the MLB First-Year Player Draft in June, even as a sophomore. College players must be either juniors or turn 21 within a month of the draft to be eligible. He turns 21 on June 29. The draft is June 12. Knight is nearly a lock to be taken, provided he doesn’t tell teams outright that “I’m definitely coming back to Arkansas.”
But all that is to be determined. For now, LSU looms. Later, the SEC Tournament. Then, presumably, the NCAA Tournament. On the broad shoulders of a 165-pounder.
So far, so good.