State of the Hogs: Knight out duels UK ace

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, March 17, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight throws during a game against Kentucky on Friday, March 16, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight throws during a game against Kentucky on Friday, March 16, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— Beating Texas was a nice highlight that will be remembered as sweet no matter what happens the rest of the season. But after watching No. 4 Kentucky take batting practice Friday afternoon, it was clear that No. 10 Arkansas was stepping up in class with the start of SEC play.

Kentucky sluggers – with 30 homers in a 14-3 start – were slamming balls over the walls at Baum Stadium at an impressive rate. By one count, 17 left the yard in the 30 minutes of batting practice. If they didn't go out, they were to the warning track.

So, when UK leadoff batter Troy Squires opened the game with a first-pitch blast that Eric Cole had to reach over the wall in right field to snare, it was clear to everyone that Arkansas ace Blaine Knight might need some offensive help.

The Razorbacks obliged. Cole delivered a solo homer in the bottom of the first and Grant Koch added two more in a 4 RBI night that included a bases-loaded walk. The Hogs cruised to a 9-4 victory on a night when the Wildcats led in hits, 12-11, but handed out seven walks and hit two batters.

Knight out-pitched Kentucky ace Sean Hjelle, a 6-11 junior who was the SEC pitcher of the year last year. Knight fought through a liner off his shin in the third inning and left with two outs in the fifth, not enough to qualify for the victory.

“I think Blaine would tell you he didn't have his best,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “But he battled. He took that one-hopper off his leg. We decided to go get him in the fifth.

“I think his velocity was 91, 94 and maybe 95 (mph), but he did a good job of throwing away to the right-hand hitters.”

That was a good thing because the wind, Van Horn said, was “howling out” to left. He said it's a rare west wind in Baum Stadium.

Maybe with a thought for what UK was like in batting practice, Van Horn said, “Both teams hit a lot of balls hard and the pitchers just had to battle.

“You could tell no lead was safe.”

Knight said his best pitch on the night was the changeup and that was a first on the season. He rated the slider and curve as “just OK.”

Van Horn said it's a tough lineup “one through nine for them, but we think we are good one through nine, too.”

I'd guess so. Koch, a preseason All-America, was hitting in the eighth spot Friday night. Van Horn almost apologized to his catcher. He's off to a solid start, hitting .333.

“I could hit him fourth, fifth or about anywhere,” Van Horn said. “But I just want to keep from stacking too many right-handers or two many left-handers together. I want to spread them out.”

Van Horn wanted to talk more about Koch's bases-loaded walk in the third inning than the two homers. All of that followed a strikeout to open the second.

"I was seeing it well," Koch said. "The first at-bat, I was frustrated with some pitches I thought were off the plate. (The umpire) was like that and we figured it out and adjusted."

On the nine-pitch walk against Hjelle, Koch said, "At that point, I'd seen all of his pitches. Even with the count 0-2, I was comfortable not going out of the strike zone. With the bases loaded, I was patient and knew anything worked. On the home runs, I just put a couple of good swings on it."

With a doubleheader set to begin 2 p.m. Saturday because of storms forecast for Sunday, Van Horn would only confirm his starter for the first game. It will be right-hander Isaiah Campbell.

There are some obvious other parameters for the UA staff because Jackson Rutledge, Barrett Loseke and Keaton McKinney are not on the 27-man roster for the weekend. Other options to start could be freshman Bryce Bonnin or sophomore Evan Lee.

Van Horn had mentioned that junior Kacey Murphy might be an option after throwing six innings against Texas on Tuesday, but that was probably if there was a Sunday game. He might be used as a situational lefty for a batter or two at some point Saturday since he's pitched before on short rest.

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