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Knight leads Arkansas to CWS Game 1 win

MLB.com @JimCallisMLB

OMAHA, Neb. -- One of the top sophomore-eligible prospects in the 2017 Draft, Blaine Knight could have gone in the top three rounds if his signability hadn't scared teams off. He opted to return for his junior season at Arkansas, a decision that has the Razorbacks one win away from their first College World Series title.

Knight improved his record to 14-0 in 17 starts, beating Oregon State, 4-1, in the opener of the three-game CWS championship series on Tuesday night. He scattered seven hits over six innings, allowing one run while striking out six, three on fastballs and three on slider/cutters.

OMAHA, Neb. -- One of the top sophomore-eligible prospects in the 2017 Draft, Blaine Knight could have gone in the top three rounds if his signability hadn't scared teams off. He opted to return for his junior season at Arkansas, a decision that has the Razorbacks one win away from their first College World Series title.

Knight improved his record to 14-0 in 17 starts, beating Oregon State, 4-1, in the opener of the three-game CWS championship series on Tuesday night. He scattered seven hits over six innings, allowing one run while striking out six, three on fastballs and three on slider/cutters.

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"This year has gone to everything I've wanted so far," said Knight, a third-round pick of the Orioles three weeks ago. "This team has picked me up all year long and we've battled together, so without this team I wouldn't be in the situation I'm in."

Knight sat at 92-93 mph with his fastball and topped out at 95 while earning his school-record 14th win of the season. It was his sixth quality start in his last seven outings, with the lone exception a five-inning victory over Texas in Arkansas' CWS opener.

"I appreciate him coming back this year," Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn said. "He felt like at the end of last year, he was very tired, he had lost a lot of weight. He just felt like he needed another year. Obviously, I feel like it was good decision, but just for him to go out into professional baseball, I feel like he'll have a lot better success now than he would have last year. It was kind of surreal knowing that that was the last time he's going to step on the mound for us."

Though he carries just 170 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame, Knight has added strength in the last year and held up better down the stretch as a junior. He beat four first-round picks this spring -- Florida's Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar (both Royals), Mississippi's Ryan Rolison (Rockies) and Auburn's Casey Mize (Tigers, No. 1 overall) -- and has won 24 of his 29 decisions in three seasons with Arkansas.

"He never gives an inch on the mound," said Razorbacks catcher Grant Koch (Pirates, fifth round). "He throws any pitch in any situation and obviously has amazing stuff. Obviously the talent is there, but what separates Blaine is his mentality, his work ethic. So many things go into it."

Knight's 14 wins rank second in NCAA Division I, trailing only Beavers left-hander Luke Heimlich, his opponent on Tuesday. Heimlich faced just one batter over the minimum in the first four innings before falling apart.

After retiring the first batter in the fifth, he didn't record another out. A walk, two singles, two hit batters and an error by second baseman Nick Madrigal (first round, No. 4 overall, White Sox) put Oregon State down, 3-1, and Heimlich exited after throwing a ball to the next batter. Freshman left-hander Christian Chamberlain entered and completed a bases-loaded walk to Heston Kjerstad to make it 4-1, though he recovered to tie a CWS record held by big leaguer Calvin Schiraldi with 11 strikeouts in relief -- eight on curveballs.

Heimlich, who led D-I with a 0.76 ERA in 2017 and with 16 wins this spring, surrendered 13 runs in a combined 9 1/3 innings in three starts in Omaha. He baffled the Razorbacks with a 90-95 mph fastball and a sharp slider for four innings before his command uncharacteristically deserted him.

On talent alone, Heimlich likely would have gone in the top two rounds in either of the past two Drafts. But news surfaced just before the 2017 Draft that he pled guilty in '12 to a felony charge of molesting his 6-year-old niece when he was 15, and he hasn't been picked in either of the past two years.

Oregon State right fielder Trevor Larnach (first round, Twins) hit a pair of doubles to set a Series record with five. He doubled to lead off the bottom of the second inning and scored the game's first run on a single by Michael Gretler (10th round, Pirates). Larnach started the fourth inning with another two-bagger and appeared to score again on a groundout by DH Tyler Malone, but the umpires called baserunner Adley Rutschman out for interference, resulting in a double play and Larnach being sent back to third base.

Outside of a pair of two-out singles in the fifth, the Beavers never seriously threatened again. Razorbacks closer Matt Cronin retired the final three batters for his school-record 14th save, recording two strikeouts on mid-90s fastballs.

If Arkansas (48-19) can beat Oregon State (53-12) either Wednesday or (if necessary) Thursday, it will mark the sixth straight year that a school has won the College World Series for the first time. The Razorbacks played for the national championship just once before, losing, 2-1, to Cal State Fullerton in a one-game final in 1979, while the Beavers won consecutive CWS in 2006-07.

Left-hander Kacey Murphy (11th round, Tigers) will start for Arkansas on Wednesday after permitting two runs in a 4 2/3-inning no-decision against Texas Tech a week earlier. Oregon State will counter with right-hander Bryce Fehmel, who has allowed six runs over 7 2/3 innings in two CWS starts. Murphy is 8-5 with a 3.15 ERA this spring, while Fehmel is 10-1 with a 3.16 ERA.

College World Series championship series schedule
Tuesday, June 26
Arkansas 4, Oregon State 1
Wednesday, June 27
Arkansas vs. Oregon State, 7 p.m. ET
Thursday, June 28
Arkansas vs. Oregon State, 6:30 p.m. ET (if necessary)

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.