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Opponents Worst Knight-mare: Ace Turns Down Pros to Return to Razorbacks

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It was day three into the 2017 MLB Draft, and the sophomore still hadn’t heard his name. He was having a great time playing golf near the Arkansas River with former teammate Josh Alberius. He was up to putt and, in the middle of his swing, he heard his name on the radio. “With the 884th overall pick, the Texas Rangers select Blaine Knight from the UofA.” He was surprised, he was honored, but deep down, right-hand pitcher Blaine Knight knew what he had to do.

Knight chose to return to the Razorback baseball team for his junior season despite being drafted by the Rangers. Knight fulfilled the lifelong dream of any collegiate baseball player, but he knew it wasn’t the right time to leave the Hogs, he said.

“It was a cool experience. I nearly threw out my driver into the river because it caught me off guard,” Knight said. “The Rangers just didn’t have exactly what I wanted. I knew after about an hour after the second day of the draft I was going back unless I got exactly what I wanted.”

Knight wanted a top-tier bonus from an MLB team, but none were able or willing to meet that demand. The Rangers still picked up Knight as a courtesy pick on the off chance that he would change his mind.

“I’m actually glad no one was able to draft me because this is going to be a great year for Arkansas baseball,” Knight said.

Knight returns to a team that was ranked in the Top Six in five preseason polls, coming in as high as No. 3 in the Collegiate Baseball Poll. The Hogs were also ranked No. 4 by D1 Baseball and Baseball America and No. 6 by Perfect Game and USA Today. The Razorbacks will look to improve coming off a season that ended with the Hogs falling 3-2 to Missouri State in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional Championship game.

“I’m just excited to play here one more time,” Knight said. “I grew up coming here and being part of that atmosphere. This team’s awesome. I think if we play correctly, we have a shot to go pretty far. I’m just trying to be the best pitcher I can be to help the team go as far as we can go.”

Knight got pro scouts interested after he hit 97 mph with his fastball last year. He worked at 90-94 mph for most of last spring, and was one of Arkansas’ star players as a sophomore when the Hogs ended the year with a No. 19 national ranking. He, at one point, struck out 48 batters through 40 innings while walking only two hitters as a full-time starter in 2017. Knight also has an effective changeup and a curveball that he can land for strikes. He has a loose arm and an easy delivery, filling the zone with all of his pitches, according to the MLB website. Three other veteran Hogs returned to the team, but Knight’s skills and accomplishments made him the only Razorback likely to be a Top 100 pick in the draft.

Razorback coach Dave Van Horn was confident that Knight would return to the Hogs, so when he got the call from Knight after the draft telling the longtime Arkansas coach he was going to stay, Van Horn said he couldn’t be happier.

"I don't know, how happy can I be?" Van Horn quipped. "It'd be like getting your starting quarterback back. You're like, 'Wow!' 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 turned down a lot of money to come back."

Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson said he was also happy to have Knight back because of the experience that he has with team over anything else.

“Going through the gauntlet of the SEC isn’t going to affect a Blaine Knight,” Johnson said. “That’s more important to me than his stuff, him being able to go in and handle that environment and not panic or be intimidated by that.” 

A Bryant, Arkansas, native and true Razorback at heart, Knight sill refers to the his first start as the best moment of his career at Arkansas. On Feb. 20, 2016, Knight took the pitcher’s mound against Central Michigan in front of about 14,000 Hog fans. 

“I can vividly remember coming from the pen and being uncontrollably shaking,” Knight said. “It was packed, and all the fans started calling the Hogs, and my heart nearly beat out of my chest. One of my greatest memories for sure.” 

Knight is joined by fellow junior right-handed pitcher Keaton McKinney and seniors Carson Shaddy and Luke Bonfield as players who chose to return to the UofA. This made the Hogs an SEC favorite, and Knight  knows this is going to be a special year but is still not letting go of his dream of going pro, he said. 

“I’ll definitely be back at the draft this year,” Knight said. “Where I go depends on how my year goes. I think I can go as high as how I make myself go.”

Until then, however, Hog fans have at least one more season to see Knight and the other Razorback upperclassmen lead the team on the road to Omaha.

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