Baseball veterans feed expectations

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Monday, February 5, 2018
Blaine Knight (left) and Keaton McKinney, both Arkansas right hand pitchers, take questions Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in the locker room during Arkansas baseball media day at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Blaine Knight (left) and Keaton McKinney, both Arkansas right hand pitchers, take questions Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018, in the locker room during Arkansas baseball media day at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Veteran Arkansas Razorbacks Blaine Knight, Keaton McKinney, Carson Shaddy and Luke Bonfield could have opted to begin their professional baseball careers last summer after a 3-2 loss to Missouri State in the final of the NCAA Fayetteville Regional.

For a variety of reasons they chose to return to school.

The somewhat unexpected returns of the pitchers Knight and McKinney, and position players Bonfield and Shaddy is one of the reasons national analysts are so high on the Hogs, who are a consensus top 10 preseason selection. They are No. 6 in the Division I Baseball Coaches poll, which is used by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as the poll of record throughout the season.

Knight, a junior right-hander from Bryant, had the toughest choice. His combination of power -- with a fastball that has touched 97 mph and a plus slider -- and control made him a likely top 100 pick in the Major League Baseball amateur draft in June as a draft-eligible sophomore.

University of Arkansas, Fayetteville Coach Dave Van Horn brought Knight in for a two-out relief appearance against Missouri State in the season finale, his only game out of the bullpen in 2017, as a kind of tip of the cap to the home-state star who was a co-ace of the staff with Trevor Stephan.

Instead, Knight (8-4, 3.28 ERA) indicated he planned to return to Arkansas. He was drafted in the 29th round by the Texas Rangers but already had made it known he was returning.

Van Horn was asked how happy he was to get Knight back at his media day news conference Jan. 27.

"I don't know, how happy can I be?" Van Horn replied, smiling. "I'm pretty happy. It'd be like getting your starting quarterback back. You're like, 'Wow!' It just gives us some stability at the top of that pitching rotation.

"If you look around the league, it's hard to get a guy back like that. They usually sign. Blaine could have been a first-day pick. He could have been easily a sandwich pick, a second-rounder. He turned down a lot of money to come back."

Knight said the quality of his teammates, such as catcher Grant Koch, helped sway him to return.

"This team, this coaching staff," Knight said. "I've got Grant. I've got Luke and Shaddy coming back. I heard they were coming back and I was like, 'I really don't have a reason to leave, you know.' Could I have left? Yeah. But I'm only a sophomore. I'm not going to lose any leverage in the draft.

"So I mean I've got all my guys back. I love this team and I love playing with them and I wanted to play with them one more time."

McKinney had a 6-2 record and 3.21 ERA as a freshman in 2015, helping lead the Razorbacks to the College World Series before a hip injury affected him in 2016 and Tommy John surgery knocked him out in 2017.

His return to form could be a critical component for a deep pitching staff. McKinney said he was hitting 90 to 93 mph on the radar recently.

"I just do what I can for the team," McKinney said. "Whatever they ask me to do. I just want to win."

He said the return of the veterans could pay huge dividends.

"It's just a huge experience factor," McKinney said. "Having Blaine back with all his experience on Friday nights is huge. ... Having guys like Shaddy and Bonfield back in the lineup, they've seen it, they know the grind of the SEC and that nothing's given to us. I mean that's huge."

Pitching coach Wes Johnson said McKinney could compete for a starting weekend or midweek role.

"Keaton could really help us more on the weekend if he gets all the way back and gets healthy as we think he's going to do," said Johnson, adding that development would give the coaches more flexibility with left-hander Kacey Murphy, who could throw against teams who might struggle against southpaws in midweek games and also be available on weekends.

Bonfield batted .294 last season with 9 home runs and 49 RBI while hitting mostly in the three hole and playing in the outfield or as designated hitter.

He said he spoke with his parents, his adviser and the coaching staff, and finances played a role in his return.

"That's always part of everything," Bonfield said. "But as well, you know I love being a Hog. I love playing in Fayetteville. We didn't accomplish what I wanted to accomplish [in 2017].

"I kind of got spoiled. First year we went to Omaha, so hopefully I can leave it better than when I came here."

Van Horn said he got a phone call from a fired-up Shaddy after he went undrafted. The senior from Fayetteville hit .279 with 8 home runs and 40 RBI in his first season as a full-time second baseman.

"He had a little attitude about it ... and I just wanted to talk to him face to face about being a senior with a little disappointment going on there."

"You know, I'll admit it, I've got little-man syndrome," Shaddy said. "When I wasn't taken, I tried my hardest not to -- I talk to my dad [ex-Razorback Chris Shaddy] a lot and he said you've really got to try not to blame it on them and say, 'Why are they not taking me?'

"The only thing you can do is sit there and say I'll prove you wrong. That's what it was. That's what it's going to be all year. I'm going to prove 32 different teams wrong as to why they should have taken me.

"At the same time, I'm very blessed and very excited to come back here. I've been an Arkansas fan my whole entire life. It's been my dream to play for the Razorbacks. Just get to do it one more year, man, it's great."

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