FAYETTEVILLE — The 1-2 Razorbacks starting pitching punch that Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn envisioned for 2017 but didn’t happen with both pitchers he had in mind may happen in 2018 as originally planned.
Right-handers Isaiah Campbell, a sophomore in 2017, and Blaine Knight, a freshman in 2017, were the promising pitchers at the end of the misbegotten, 26-29 overall/7-23 SEC 2017 supposed to pitch the Razorbacks towards better things in 2017.
Minus Campbell, requiring surgery to remove bone chips from his right arm, and hardshipped for 2018, the Razorbacks did get that 1-2 punch helping the Hogs improved to 45-19 and runner-up in the SEC West, the SEC Tournament and the Fayetteville Regional they hosted at Baum Stadium.
They improved greatly from the varying 1-2 in order starts by Bryant native Knight, a team wins leading 8-4, 3.28 earned run average with 96 strikeouts vs. 20 walks in 90 2-3 innings, and Trevor Stephan, the junior college transfer right-hander who went 6-3 with a 2.87 ERA and 120 strikeouts vs. 20 walks in 91 innings.
Van Horn went through most of 2017 assuming Knight, turning a draft eligible 21 on June 28, would be drafted early and sign and uncertain about Campbell’s future when his arm problems occurred before the season began.
Unlike fellow Razorbacks injured pitchers Keaton McKinney and Cody Scroggins undergoing Tommy John surgery making their 2018 spring availability unknown, Campbell is expected to pitch fall practice in September and October and be ready for the official February start of the 2018 season.
Likely in part inspired by Stephan, turning down an 18th-round draft choice offer from the Boston Red Sox as a 2016 draft eligible junior college sophomore, Stephan instead proceeded with his plans from signing with Arkansas to post an excellent season enhanced by clocking 95-plus fast balls to be drafted in the third round by the New York Yankees.
Stephan signed Friday with the Yankees for $800,000 according to MLB.com.
Knight, throwing mid 90s despite a spindly 6-3, 165 frame, reportedly let it be known his intention, unless offered a certain sum, he would be hitting the weights this summer and returning to pitch for the Razorbacks both to enhance his pro draft for 2018 and continue his lifelong Arkansas native dream to pitch for the Hogs.
The Texas Rangers took a chance on Knight signing drafting him Wednesday in the 29th round.
The Rangers have until July 7 to make an offer that Knight deems acceptable before the pro signing deadline passes.
“That would be huge for our team and I think in the long run it would be huge for him,” Van Horn said before the draft of Knight possibly returning “We’ll see how that goes.”
A stronger Knight and a healthy Campbell would provide a powerful 1-2 pitching punch with plenty of third-game SEC series starting alternatives including returning lefties Kacey Murphy, Matt Cronin and Evan Lee and right-handers Kevin Kopps and Jake Reindl.
“Obviously it would be huge if Campbell comes back as good or better than he was, and I think he will once he’s 100 percent,” Van Horn said in his June 9 season wrap up press conference. “Then obviously the opportunity to get Blaine back. If we don’t get him we’ll still be OK, but if we get him back, that’s a pretty good 1-2 punch with Blaine leading the way. He’s the one with the experience. Blaine’s been there. He’s been in the battle. Campbell’s got good stuff, but he doesn’t have Blaine’s experience. I see Blaine being our Friday night starter next year if he comes back. If he does, that’d be a pretty good start.”
While negotiating eligible with the Rangers through July 7, Knight will lift weights and work out both in Fayetteville and at home in Bryant.
The Razorbacks received unexpected bonuses when 3-year letterman juniors that Van Horn expected to be drafted, regular left fielder/designated hitter Luke Bonfield and regular second baseman Carson Shaddy, went undrafted and are returning as seniors for 2018.
Bonfield and Shaddy both will play summer ball in the Cape Cod League.