In season-long battle of aces, Knight tops them all

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, May 26, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight throws during an SEC Tournament game against Florida on Friday, May 25, 2018, in Hoover, Ala.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight throws during an SEC Tournament game against Florida on Friday, May 25, 2018, in Hoover, Ala.

HOOVER, Ala. -- The array of SEC aces faced by Arkansas right-hander Blaine Knight looks like a who's who of projected first- or second-round Major League Baseball Draft picks.

Auburn's Casey Mize, Ole Miss' Ryan Rolison, Kentucky's Sean Hjelle, Mississippi State's Konnor Pilkington and Florida's Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar all matched up against the Arkansas junior this season. Knight hasn't lost to any of them.

The latest try came from Kowar (9-4), who was dealt the loss in the Razorbacks' 8-2 victory Friday at the SEC Tournament, which sent the Razorbacks into the tournament semifinals.

Knight improved to 10-0 by allowing just one run, on SEC Player of the Year Jonathan India's sixth-inning home run. The junior from Bryant said the series of aces that he's beaten doesn't really pump him up.

"I just look at it as wins against a bunch of good teams," Knight said. "I don't really look at who it is. It could be whatever their name is. I'm just trying to get wins for my team. I'm happy with the wins."

Knight beat Singer, Rolison and Mize in succession midway through the season and would've added Hjelle to the front of that list if not for taking a hard-hit ball off his shin and having to leave with a 4-2 lead in the fifth inning.

In rankings by Baseball America, Mize is projected as the No. 1 pick in the draft, while Singer is No. 4, Kowar is No. 16, Rolison is No. 21 and Hjelle is No. 30.

"It's pretty amazing what he's done," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "He won't talk about it a whole lot, but we do behind closed doors I guess. He's taken them all on and he's been right there with them and he's given us a chance to win and we've won. I don't know, there's four or five of them that are going to be high draft picks, but so will he."

Kowar allowed a two-run home run to freshman Casey Martin in the second, then gave up RBI singles to Dominic Fletcher and Jared Gates in the sixth, his final inning.

Florida Coach Kevin O'Sullivan thought the pitchers duel, which Arkansas was leading 4-1 when both Knight and Kowar came out, was impressive.

"I just think [Knight] executed some pitches down and away to the right-handed hitters," O'Sullivan said. "We had some scoring opportunities there early, he just made some really good pitches.

"I mean, I thought both Blaine and Jackson threw the ball well. It was a well-pitched game for both sides. One mistake to Martin and we fall behind 2-0. Other than that, I thought Blaine got himself in a little trouble in the early innings, but made some pitches. That simple. He made pitches when he needed to."

Knight has picked up victories in four of his last five outings since leaving a game at Mississippi State with a lead on April 20 before the Bulldogs rallied.

However, he has been prone to giving up home runs. India's solo shot Friday marked the sixth consecutive start Knight has allowed a home run, and opponents have eight long balls against him in that span.

The home runs balls don't faze him, Van Horn said.

"He's very mature on the mound, so whether it's going good or bad, you really can't tell," he said. "A couple of years back, it wasn't that way.

"I think he realizes he's got the stuff to get out of jams, stay calm, stay under control. He gives up a home run, it's not a problem, just go back and attack the next hitter."

Knight said his breaking ball was a little shaky against the Gators, so he relied mostly on his other pitches.

"I just tried to keep my breaking ball around the zone. Everything else was really good," he said. "Just against Florida, you try not to make mistakes over the plate. They're a team that if you make mistakes, they will punish you. They're No. 1 for a reason. Make them hit my pitches and my defense did the rest."

Van Horn and Martin said the Razorbacks tend to play good defense behind their ace.

"I thought Blaine threw a really good game," Martin said. "He's been good all year."

And he's been unbeatable all year, no matter who he's faced.

Sports on 05/26/2018


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