Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Good Knight ends SEC drought
Arkansas starter Blaine Knight delivers to the plate against Mississippi State Friday, March 17, 2017, during the first inning at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks' long SEC losing streak bit the dust Friday night, thanks to a masterpiece from Blaine Knight and the long ball.
Knight struck out a career-high 11 and limited Mississippi State to 3 hits in 7 innings as the Razorbacks won their SEC opener 3-1.
Luke Bonfield and Grant Koch accounted for all of the runs for the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville with a pair of home runs, giving the Razorbacks an SEC-high 27.
The victory, before an estimated crowd of 4,387 at Baum Stadium, snapped an 11-game SEC losing streak for the Razorbacks (15-4, 1-0) dating to April 30. Arkansas won its SEC opener for the first time since a 4-3 victory over Alabama on March 16, 2012.
Mississippi State (12-7, 0-1), the defending SEC regular-season champion, ended the Razorbacks' 2016 season with a sweep in Starkville, Miss.
"I think it's nice because ... we remember what happened last year and how our season ended," Bonfield said. "They ended our season last year. I think that was especially nice tonight."
Knight (2-1), a sophomore from Bryant, pitched the best game of his career in his 12th college start, outdueling Mississippi State lefty Konnor Pilkington (2-3), who struck out 13 and gave up four hits.
The right-hander had a two-out glitch in the first inning, giving up a home run to Ryan Gridley and a double to Brent Rooker, but he settled in after that and commanded four pitches.
"I had really good command of the fastball," said Knight, whose 104 pitches and seven innings were both career highs. "I could get it glove side at any point in time today.
"The cutter, I was able to bury it. I was able to throw it where I wanted. The slider, I threw it a lot for a chase pitch and it worked out. The change-up, I threw it a couple of times when I needed it and it worked."
The catcher Koch, whose solo home run in the sixth inning gave Arkansas a 3-1 lead, said Knight "had all of his stuff working. He was really throwing hard tonight, and it kind of lasted throughout the game, which is rare with a lot of guys. His velo[city] lasted all game, so just phenomenal from him."
Cannon Chadwick retired the Bulldogs in order in the ninth inning to pick up his first save. Chadwick and relievers Kevin Kopps and Evan Lee combined to strike out 3 in 2 innings to run Arkansas' total to 14. Pilkington threw a career-high 125 pitches and tied a career-high with 13 strikeouts.
"I'll just say this, that was a really good Friday night ballgame in the SEC," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "What was there, 24, 25 strikeouts?"
Mississippi State Coach Andy Cannizaro, like Van Horn, said his team struck out too many times.
"We've got to do a better job of putting the ball in play with two strikes," he said. "I thought their guys did an outstanding job tonight of pounding the outer half of the strike zone, throwing their secondary stuff for called strikes."
Pilkington struck out the side in the second and fifth innings, then did it again in the eighth, which he began after throwing 111 pitches through seven.
"I left a couple of balls up, and they left the yard," Pilkington said. "The other pitcher threw a really good ballgame.
"You make five mistakes in a game, six mistakes, and a quality team is going to take advantage of it, and that's what they did. It's eating at me right now."
Arkansas and Mississippi State entered as the top two home run-hitting teams in the SEC, and both added to their totals in the first.
Gridley, the Mississippi State shortstop, hammered a low fastball well over the left-field wall with two outs in the first to put the Bulldogs ahead 1-0.
"It ran over a little too much, right into his wheelhouse where he likes it, middle in," Knight said.
The Razorbacks didn't need long to retaliate. Chad Spanberger hit an opposite-field single with one out in the bottom of the first, then Bonfield guided a 2-1 fastball over the right-field fence for an opposite-field home run and 2-1 lead.
"It was a fastball, probably outer half, but he left it up a little bit," Bonfield said.
"Yeah, it was a two-seamer. He was sitting on it and it was away, and he took it that way," Pilkington said.
Knight settled down after the shaky first, retiring 12 of the next 13 batters, with 8 strikeouts included, before he hit Cody Brown with a pitch with 2 outs in the sixth.
He escaped that inning after a lengthy battle with Gridley by inducing a ground out to shortstop.
Pitching coach Wes Johnson, who was at Mississippi State last year, talked to Knight about coming out after six innings.
"He walked down to me and had the look on his face like, 'Hey, we're fixing to yank you,' " Knight said. "I told him, 'Don't you do it.' I said, 'Don't. I got one more in me. Let me get it. Then we can turn it over to somebody else.' "
Knight, who fought through cramping in his forearm, retired the Bulldogs' four, five and six hitters in order in the seventh, finishing his night with a strikeout of Brant Blaylock.
Sports on 03/18/2017
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