Area pitcher Blake McKnight hoping for late rise through Cardinal system
By John Bailey
(BaseballStL) -- “Sometimes,” says Peoria Chiefs pitching coach Jason Simontacchi, “you work and work with them and then the light just goes on.”
That proverbial light not only went on but also appears to be shining brightly for pitching prospect Blake McKnight.
Homeschooled in O’Fallon, Mo., McKnight could not compete on a high school team and instead got whatever experience he could on the local American Legion team. With no high school exposure, no major college offered him a scholarship, but he did find a home at Evangel University, in Springfield, Mo., an NAIA school. There he competed on the underclass team, quickly rising to varsity.
With near perfect mechanics, a heavy fastball and respectable off-speed pitches, the Cardinals took a chance on the under-developed prospect, selecting him in the 38th round. He was the first player ever drafted from Evangel University. “The scout saw me in Springfield at a showcase and came back during my senior year to see me throw. I think I threw a complete game when he was there.”
The relaxed but focused McKnight said playing in the majors is every little kids dream, but a dream he doubted would ever come true for him with no high school exposure and very few looks by scouts.
“I thought about what would happen if I was drafted and I decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” he remembers. After a solid year at Johnson City, McKnight was promoted to Peoria where, like a lot of young pitchers, he struggled a little early.
“The hitters are better but what I had to remember was what made me successful,” said the mature 23-year-old. “I have to command my fastball because I get a lot of ground balls on that. I also have to command both sides of the plate,” echoing one of Simontacchi’s points of emphasis.
For McKnight, it is now more than just words. It has become part of what he does. Over four starts from mid-June through July 4, McKnight went 4-0 and surrendered only four runs in about 24 innings and piled up the groundouts.
“Hitters are more powerful here and harder to fool. You have to make good pitches and stay ahead in the count. We work a lot on the pitcher’s mindset, like when to throw inside for effect and how that sets up something else later on. “
While McKnight’s age brings maturity, it also brings the reality that his advancement through the Cardinals farm system must be constant and successful. He does not have the four extra years that Rob Kaminsky or Alex Reyes has. “There are pros and cons to being older,” he reflected. “I kind of wish I was (where I am now) but a little younger.”