Going into a new season, coaches often say that the best recruit they brought in is actually a returning player that they may not have expected to get back.
As the 2017 season played out, with Blaine Knight a key piece in the weekend rotation for an Arkansas team that ended up hosting a regional, buzz in the college baseball community led you to believe that the draft-eligible sophomore righty would be drafted early, pushing him to move into pro baseball after two seasons in Fayetteville.
But as the season ended for the Razorbacks, none other than Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn suggested that it wasn’t that simple.
“I think there’s a chance he might come back,” Van Horn told the media at an end-of-season press conference. “That would be huge for our team, and I think in the long run it would be huge for him.”
Lo and behold, word likely filtered out that Knight was set on coming back to campus because he slipped to the 29th round of the draft, far below his predicted selection range, and now he’s coming back for at least one more year at Arkansas, giving Van Horn perhaps the best non-traditional recruit in the country.
One year after Arkansas really struggled to get quality starts, Knight was huge in steadying the Razorbacks’ starting rotation in 2017.
He went 8-4 with a 3.28 ERA. He threw 90.2 innings over 17 appearances, striking out 96, walking just 20, and holding opponents to a .222 batting average. He and fellow righty Trevor Stephan, who was selected in the third round and signed with the New York Yankees, made for quite the duo at the top of the rotation.
That performance came one year after Knight was a bright spot on the 2016 staff that suffered through uncharacteristic struggles. Across 18 appearances, seven of which were starts, he had a 2.98 ERA and a 46/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 48.1 innings of work.
Now, Knight will be plugged into the 2018 weekend rotation, where the hope is that he will once again be part of a dynamic duo, this time with Isaiah Campbell. Campbell pitched in just one game in 2017, throwing two-thirds of an inning, before being shut down and missing the remainder of the season due to bone spurs. Now healthy and firing his fastball into the mid-90s during the fall, the hope is that he can be the Stephan of 2018 in terms of stepping up and becoming a co-ace.
In any event, Arkansas has depth on the mound that suggests their pitching staff should perform more like the 2017 version than the 2016 version as the team moves into 2018, and crucially, they’ll be led by blue-chip recruit Blaine Knight.