Blake McKnight went from throwing 80 miles per hour as a college freshman to being drafted by Cardinals as a senior. (Evangel U. photo)

By Rob Rains

Eight years ago, Blake McKnight was a member of a traveling youth baseball team from the St. Louis area which played in a national tournament in Kingsport, Tenn.

McKnight was in the eighth grade at the time, a homeschooled student from O’Fallon, Mo., who liked baseball but at the time really had no aspirations of playing the sport for any reason other than fun.

While on that trip to Kingsport, McKnight’s father, Tom, and the team attended a Johnson City Cardinals game, a short drive from Kingsport. The Cardinals were and still are the St. Louis Cardinals’ affiliate in the rookie level Appalachian League.

“I am sure that at some point I leaned over and said to him, ‘Hey, would you like to play here some day?’” Tom McKnight recalled this week.

The elder McKnight thought about that moment from 2005 this week as he drove his 22-year-old son to the airport for the trip that would begin his career as a professional baseball player. Blake McKnight’s first stop was Jupiter, Fla., to take his physical and sign his contract with the Cardinals, before hopping on a bus with his other new teammates for a 12-hour bus ride – to Johnson City.

The Johnson City Cardinals will begin their season this Thursday – with a game in Kingsport.

“It really is kind of a Cinderella story,” the elder McKnight said.

Of the 41 players selected by the Cardinals in last week’s amateur baseball draft, the younger McKnight might have had the most unusual journey to becoming a professional. He was chosen in the 38th round of the draft, the 1,145th player picked by a major-league organization.

The odds of him even being drafted at all likely would have been astronomical only a couple of years ago, for a multitude of reasons, starting with the fact that McKnight did not play on a high school baseball team because he and his four brothers and sisters were homeschooled.

“My coaching of Blake so to speak just as a man was that you don’t want baseball to be your life,” Tom McKnight said. “Homeschooling our kids was just more of a philosophy of values for our family and part of our perspective of being close as a family. We didn’t want baseball to be our God and his God.”

When Blake was a freshman, his dad and the father of another homeschooled youngster formed the St. Louis Patriots, an outlet for those students who could not play on a traditional high school team. It took a couple of years to get more organized, but by the time Blake was a junior and senior, that team played between 15 and 20 games a year. They even went to a national tournament, which the Patriots won behind Blake, named the MVP.

“The competition wasn’t great, but I know he was like, ‘I’ve tasted this, I want to do more,’” Tom McKnight said. His son also played more competitive baseball as a member of an American Legion team.

Still, academics were more important than athletics when it came time for Blake to decide where to go to college. He picked Evangel University, a small NAIA school in Springfield, Mo. He walked on to the baseball team, and spent his freshman year on the junior varsity.

By his own admission, McKnight’s fastball barely exceeded 80 miles per hour.

Evangel also had not exactly been a springboard to many pro baseball careers. The school, with a combined 2,100 students in undergraduate and graduate programs, had never had a player drafted since its baseball program began in 1965, and nobody would have predicted that would change in the next couple of years.

By the time he was a senior, however, the 6-foot-1 McKnight was throwing in the low 90s, and Dirk Kinney, the area scout for the Cardinals in western Missouri and eastern Kansas, began to take an interest. He drove from his home in Kansas City to Springfield during a snowstorm in January to attend a showcase, and Evangel’s coach brought McKnight to the event, which was mostly for high school students.

“A lot of people weren’t there because it had snowed,” Kinney said. “Driving down there I thought maybe I should turn around, but I continued on and man it worked out well. I’m thankful it snowed, looking back on it.”

Kinney saw McKnight throw four quality pitches, all with movement, which he could control, including a fastball that was around 90 miles an hour. Kinney put McKnight on the list of players he was following, and as the season began, got reports that the right-hander was continuing to get stronger and gaining more velocity every time he pitched.

“Pretty much when you see a kid get stronger like that throughout the year, regardless of what level he’s at, it’s very intriguing,” Kinney said. “Kids usually hit their peak velocity in early April and then start wearing down. He never wore down. He pitched 92 innings in a very short amount of time.”

Kinney went to see McKnight pitch on April 20, against Central Methodist, the best team in the Heart of America conference. He saw McKnight throw a four-hit shutout, with no walks, needing just 73 pitches to win the seven-inning game 1-0.

McKnight’s final college game came on May 1, when he won 2-1 in the conference tournament, allowing just three hits, two of which didn’t leave the infield. The radar gun in this game clocked his best fastball at 93 to 94 miles per hour.

“Most of the increases have come in the last two years, when I have put more time and effort into it,” said the younger McKnight, who estimated he put on about 20-25 pounds of muscle during his last two years in college. “I definitely think there is still more to gain.”

McKnight finished his senior season with an 11-3 record, a 1.56 ERA and limited opponents to a .156 batting average. He had 83 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings. He didn’t slack off academically either, becoming an academic All-American, earning his degree from Evangel in exercise science and graduating with honors.

Kinney, a former college coach himself, was impressed enough to recommend that the Cardinals draft McKnight.

“Rarely do you see a kid who continues to get stronger pitching as much as he did,” Kinney said. “Does he have things he needs to work on? Absolutely. But you have to give him a pat on the back for working his tail off. Have I ever come across a small school kid whose velocity jumped 12 miles an hour over four years? No.

“His plus stuff is what gets you drafted, but all of the other stuff also is really important. His makeup is just awesome. He’s an awesome kid. His stuff warranted him getting a chance to play professional baseball.”

As he got closer to seeing that possibility, a chance was all McKnight wanted.

“Honestly, just getting that opportunity is enough,” said McKnight, whose backup career plan, until last week, was to attend graduate school at Southwest Baptist this fall in physical therapy.

Those plans have now been placed on hold and if his father is right, the younger McKnight will approach his professional career in the same manner he went about getting bigger and stronger in college.

“Blake looks at this exactly like college,” the elder McKnight said. “’Hey, I’ve been given an opportunity and I have to go to work and take advantage of it.’ It’s almost the exact situation and mindset that he had going to college.

“I’m anxious to see how they work with him, because he has not had a lot of professional coaching. I want to see what happens when he gets with experts about pitching.”

So does Kinney, and McKnight himself.

“Thoughts about playing pro ball were not even there until a couple of years ago,” McKnight said.

As he drove his son to the airport, Tom McKnight had a message for Blake.

“It was the first time he’s ever heard me say it, but I told him, ‘Blake, baseball is your number one priority right now, other than your relationship with God,’” McKnight said. “He never heard me say that before. It’s true. It’s his job. And if he puts into it what he has put into everything else, we’ll see how far his abilities take him. One thing I know is that he will not be outworked.”

Kinney gets two other new Cardinals as well.

Kinney, hired by former scouting director Jeff Luhnow in 2010, recommended two other players from his territory that the Cardinals also drafted this year – catcher Alex DeLeon from the University of Kansas, and shortstop Michael Schulze from Missouri Western.

Schulze was the NCAA Division II national player of the year after hitting .439, a school record. Both DeLeon and Schulze will begin their pro careers in State College, Pa., where the Spikes begin their season in the New York-Penn League on Monday night.

Schulze is yet another example of a small-school player who could produce big dividends for the Cardinals.

“Our job is to go find players,” said Kinney, who prior to becoming a scout for the Cardinals was the head coach at Ouachita Baptist for one year, the recruiting coordinator and pitching coach at Arkansas-Little Rock and a successful high school coach in Kansas.

“All of our guys do a good job of that (finding players) regardless of what level it is,” Kinney said. “We have a lot of guys succeeding in the minor leagues who were small-school guys.”

Included in that group is another player Kinney signed last year, left-handed pitcher Lee Stoppelman out of Central Missouri, selected in the 24th round.

Stoppelman has reached Double A in less than a year as a professional and went into Sunday’s game having appeared in relief in eight games at Springfield, working 9 1/3 innings, allowing just three hits, with five walks and 12 strikeouts and a 1.93 ERA, while holding opponents to an .097 batting average.

Combined with his performance starting this year at Class A Palm Beach, Stoppelman is 2-1 in 2013 with a 1.62 ERA. In his first year of pro ball, at Batavia last year, Stoppelman had 49 strikeouts and only seven walks in 22 games, finishing the year with a 0.79 ERA.

“He’s an off-the-charts makeup guy too,” Kinney said.

Kinney also has signed another St. Louis-area product this year, non-drafted free agent Kyle Grieshaber, also from Central Missouri. Grieshaber, an infielder, went to Marquette High School in St. Louis and transferred to Central Missouri after starting his college career at Louisville.

Grieshaber will also report to Johnson City to start the season.