FAYETTEVILLE - With less than his best stuff, Blaine Knight stuffed the best team he’s pitched against this season.
Arkansas junior right-hander Knight of Bryant shut out the Pac 12 power Southern California Trojans for six innings Friday afternoon before 6,008 at Baum Stadium.
Knight, now 2-0, relayed a 4-0 lead to freshman reliever Jackson Rutledge to maintain the final three innings for a 4-0 Razorbacks victory upping Arkansas of the SEC to 8-2 going into today’s 2 p.m game against the now 7-2 Trojans.
The 3-game series concludes at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
A 2-out 2-run home run by Arkansas senior designated hitter Luke Bonfield in the first and Bonfield’s fifth-inning RBI groundout immediately after Heston Kjerstad’s RBI single provided the offensive comfort required even as Knight confessed, and Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn affirmed, that Knight pitched uncomfortably.
Other than a 1-2-3 fifth, Knight pitched from the stretch every inning scattering six singles plus a hit batsman and a walk and his own error for missing first base on a throw from first baseman Jared Gates.
Yet, supported by otherwise errorless defense, Knight never allowed a Trojan beyond second base.
“Blaine Knight didn’t have his command today really and USC did a great of job laying off a lot of pitches and getting his pitch count up (98 pitches for six complete),” Van Horn said. “For him to go out there and give us six innings for awhile there when it looked like he was going to give us four, five at the most. I almost pulled him after five but he wanted to go out and he actually had a really good sixth inning. He threw some of his better located fast balls and a couple of nice off speed pitches. I think the maturity is coming out in him now that he doesn’t have to have his best stuff and he can still win.”
Van Horn said Knight was aided by Arkansas’ errorless defense and that USC hit a couple of line drives smack into Arkansas gloves.
A Trojan tripping over second base on a teammate’s single to center and getting thrown out in a rundown helped, too.
“The defense, they were solid,” Knight said. “I really appreciate them because they made some good plays for me that saved some runs saved me a lot of pitches. Big thanks to them.”
He needed all the help he could get, he said.
“My command was really not what it normal was,” Knight said. “I’m going to go back and watch film and try to figure it out. But I had to do what I had to do. I threw a bunch of off-speed to try to keep them off of anything hard. Defense backed me up big-time and I was able to gut it out for six.”
Senior Bonfield said it’s never surprising to see Knight at his competitive best even when his stuff isn’t at its best.
“That's nothing new for me,” Bonfield said. “When that guy’s on the mound, you just know he's going to give you six solid innings and if you put up a couple of runs early he'll shut the door and that's what he did.”
Rutledge, the 6-8, fireballing freshman hitting 98 on Friday’s radar gun, netted his first save throwing a scoreless final three inning with two strikeouts against a hit and a walk.
It was redemption for Jackson whose throwing error last week made him the 4-3 loser against Cal Poly that had trailed before starter Knight was relieved.
“ I think Jackson Rutledge was really frustrated the way it went against Cal Poly last week,” Van Horn said. “He mishandled a ball that was hit back to him and went down and got it and didn’t have a grip and threw it down the right field line and they end up winning the game. And I think he was ready to get back on the mound and he showed what he can do. He did exactly what we wanted him to do throw and that’s throw the ball over the plate with
a little velocity and mixing in a couple of breaking balls. And he didn’t give them any free passes really for the most part.”
Leadoff batter Jax Biggers had singled in the Arkansas first, stole second but only reached third with two outs before Bonfield parked losing starter Chris Clarke’s 0-1 pitch over the left field fence for his 2-run home run.
“First pitch they threw me a slider and it was away, so I took it,” Bonfield said. “I knew he was a sinker ball pitcher and so I was kind of looking for something up over the plate and I got it. I was able to put a good swing on it and catch a barrel.”
Biggers 1-out walk precipitated Arkansas’ 2-run fourth. Cole walked. Heston Kjerstad singled Biggers home and Cole to third before Bonfield netted his third RBI on an infield out. USC third baseman Angelo Armenta appeared to set to throw home charging Bonfield’s 1-out grounder but slightly bobbled it compelling Armenta to throw out Bonfield while Cole scored.
“That was good for him to at least put the bat on the ball and drive in another run,” Van Horn said. “Good day for our cleanup hitter.”