The East Tennessee State team bus was halfway to Western Carolina when the call came. The sports of America began falling over like dominoes that day as the coronavirus alarm siren went off, including an upcoming baseball series in Wilmington, N.C., featuring arguably the hottest pitcher in the nation.
The East Tennessee starter scheduled to work the opener was a senior righthander named Landon Knack. “We were three hours down the road, and then without stopping, turned around and came three hours back,” he said. “Crazy is the best word.”
And just like that, Landon Knack’s senior season — which started with some of the nation’s most extraordinary pitching numbers anywhere — screeched to a halt, as if the bus driver had just slammed on the brakes with an anvil.
Most every senior athlete will leave this aborted spring with the wistful curiosity of what might have happened, but maybe none more than Knack. On March 7, he started against Wagner, and pitched six scoreless, five-hit innings. He retired 18 batters. He struck out 16 of them.
“Every inning, it was like I was chasing strikeouts. Of the outs, I remember the two they put in play so well; they were both two-strike counts that they tapped off the end of the bat to the shortstop. It was probably the most locked-in and most fun I think I’ve had on the mound.”
At the end of that day, he was 4-0, with a 1.08 earned run average. In 25 innings, he had struck out 51 batters. He had walked one. That 51-1 ratio was light years ahead of anyone else in the nation, and he was leading Division I in Ks, too. He had thrown 352 pitches, and only 93 of them — 26 percent — had been called a ball. A truly remarkable senior season seemed at hand. Plus, the Buccaneers were 12-3 as a team. And then the lights went out.
“Until the day it stopped, I was for sure that things would just keep on going,” he said. “That had never crossed my mind, that that would be the last chance I got to pitch this year.”
But it was, and now to hear Knack’s frustration is probably like listening to waves of other athletes out there, whose seasons — and careers — suddenly hit the wall.
“As good as our team was this year, probably the best team ETSU has had in a while, I really think we had a good chance to make it to a regional and do some special things. And then personally, some of the numbers I was on pace for, it’s going to always be a thing of sitting there (thinking) what if? What would have happened if we had gotten to keep going? But I try my best not to go too far into it because I know that would drive me crazy, just to sit there and play the what-if game.
“Mentally, last year to this year I have matured a lot. I’ve gained velocity to go along with it, and the stuff I’ve worked on, it kind of all came together this year. Sitting here thinking you’re going into your last season of college ball, you’re wanting to go out on a high note, you’re doing well and then to see your senior season just stop in the middle . . . it’s been very disappointing.”
Not to mention, a jarring change in lifestyle. Your average college athlete isn’t exactly hard-wired for a stay-at-home order. In Knack’s case, home is just 15 minutes from campus.
“I’m starting to really realize just how much time I spent with baseball. I have so much time to fill now . . . going from being a guy who basically spent all day at the dome we have or the field doing my work to now just sitting around my house all the time. It’s very interesting to see what my life is like right now.
“I miss it like crazy every day. I miss my teammates, I miss being out there on the field. We have some zoom meetings here and there where I see my teammates, but I went from seeing them every single day — we were an extremely close group, the closest group I’ve been a part of — to not seeing them anymore. It kinda sucks.”
He still must work on his game, hoping to keep some of the magic that was there when that call for the team bus to U-turn came on May 12. “I have an OK little set-up for throwing in the backyard,” he said, meaning at his father’s home. “I drive from my mom’s house to my dad’s house to throw and drive back, and that’s basically the only getting out of the house I do.”
He has one semester’s work left to finish his accounting degree and also will now wait for the baseball draft. If that doesn’t work out, he can always return to East Tennessee State, since the NCAA granted spring sports an extra year of eligibility. But chances are, his career ended with that 16-strikeout gem.
“I appreciate the game more than ever right now. It’s definitely put a new perspective on everything.”
He spoke for lots of people with that.