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College | Story | 4/16/2020

Having a Knack For Success

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Landon Knack (Dakota Hamilton/ETSU Athletics)

See also: Top 10 College Seniors

When East Tennessee State senior Landon Knack and his Walters State teammates initially took the field to open the 2018 season two years ago they had a feeling they could be part of something special. The Senators went 60-8 overall, a season that ended with a runner-up finish at the JUCO World Series. In Grand Junction, Colo., they recorded wins over Chipola, Jefferson County, San Jacinto and Southern Idaho before losing two contests to the eventual champions, Chipola, who had battled back through the loser’s bracket to win it all.

Following the 2018 season Knack returned to his hometown in Johnson City, Tenn., to attend ETSU while several of his Walters State teammates had moved on to programs in Power 5 conferences including TCU, North Carolina, Alabama and South Carolina, among other Division I teams.

For Knack, coming to play at ETSU wasn’t just about returning home, it was about buying into what new head coach Joe Pennucci, hitting coach Ross Oeder and pitching coach Micah Posey were building. Knack knew that if he wanted to take the next step in his development there would need to be some serious changes, starting with his conditioning, and from their initial conversations it was clear they were all on the same page.

Knack was one of the players that had a huge season in 2018 for Walters State. Not only did he do it on the mound, going 13-0 with a 3.01 ERA, but he also hit .343 with 11 dingers and 37 RBI.

“It was just really getting to have a chance,” Knack told Perfect Game in a recent telephone interview about his breakout sophomore season. “The year before I had gotten injured and really didn’t get a chance to show what I could do. That team it seemed like we really fed off of each other. We were so loaded and each game we scored so many runs. Once one person hit a home run or hit a double we would just take off and the entire lineup would just go off. It was a fun team to be around.”

For as good as his overall numbers were in 2018, both offensively and on the mound, Knack was considered a primary position player. His uncanny ability to throw strikes is what gave him opportunities to pitch, but his focus outside of games was on his ability to hit in the lefthanded batter’s box and his fielding around the first base bag.

“Going into (2018) I was a position player first,” Knack added. “I wasn’t a pitcher, really, I was more of a guy who they knew could throw a lot of strikes. I really wouldn’t do a whole lot of work on (pitching) – I’d do everything positionally and just go out on the mound and pitch.”

Pennucci was hired to take over the program during the summer of 2017 and Knack was one of the players he and his staff had initially recruited to join the program starting in 2019. Pennucci was a well-respected assistant and recruiter from Stony Brook and has made a strong, early impact for the Buccaneers, going 74-49 in three seasons which included a 34-21 finish in 2019 and a 12-3 start to 2020.

Pennucci and Posey both saw promise in Knack as a pitcher and knew he could be a part of the success they were looking to build at the Division I level. However, it would take some work on both sides, and a significant amount of change to the focus of Knack’s development.

Throwing strikes is something Knack did very well. In 92 2/3 innings as a sophomore at Walters State he only issued 13 walks. He didn’t throw especially hard, throwing anywhere from the low-80s to the upper-80s, but he also wasn’t a primary pitcher.

“He’s a premier strike thrower … He’s got a little breaking ball that he can flip in there, but beyond the stuff he can really, really throw strikes,” Pennucci said about his staff ace. “On top of that he’s a worker. He dedicates himself to the work room. He doesn’t take days off and he pushes his teammates to continue to do those things.

“That’s what makes him so valuable to our team, beyond having a chance to win every day. I think he makes guys better because they’ve seen the work he puts in and the results that have shown for it.”

Immediately after the 2018 season Knack began the process that has turned him into the player he is today. He was placed on a throwing program, but since he threw so many innings that spring the primary focus was on his conditioning. He spent a lot of time in the weight room to work on his conditioning, and not surprising, that added strength and improved body led to a spike in velocity.

“Getting to ETSU that fall I (became) a pitcher that also hit at the time before we eventually shut the hitting down,” Knack recalled. “Getting to focus on pitching and really focusing on trying to throw harder and really trying to use my legs. They worked with me on trying to throw with intent.

“Throwing with intent helped me creep to 90 and then talking about using your body right and getting yourself in shape. I had to work really hard in the weight room and with my diet to get my body right. So body composition came into play, using my body correctly.”

As a junior in 2019 Knack was now throwing comfortably at his previous peak, sitting around 90-92 mph while touching a 93 or 94 from time to time. With another summer of hard work after the 2019 season he elevated his velocity once again, making his previous peak his new norm. Knack now regularly threw 92-94 as a senior, touching as high as 97-98. The slider had shown improvement and his changeup was beginning to turn into a more reliable pitch as well.

The entire transformation essentially turned Knack from a possible senior sign in the 2020 MLB Draft into a legitimate draft prospect that should be selected regardless of how short, or long, the draft may be. That development certainly points to his dedication and hard work.

“I don’t think it was a magic wand that hit him and all of the sudden he just woke up and had a 3-to-5 mile-an-hour jump because he continually worked overtime to create that,” Pennucci said.

With his hard work he went 9-4 with a 2.60 ERA in his first year at ETSU in 2019 and then 4-0 with a 1.08 ERA and a remarkable 51-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 25 innings this year.

Although the season is now over, Knack didn’t have far to go to return home and to continue to work to at least maintain where he had left off. He frequently reaches out to his brother-in-law, Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand, top prospect and fellow Johnson City native Will Craig to talk about all phases of the game, including the mental and emotional aspects and some of the things he can do to prepare for what appears to be a likely professional career.

“It’s hard to try to make any gains during this time,” Knack said. “I’ve got some bands and some smaller weights around the house. Throwing-wise I got lucky and was able to get one of the portable mounds and take it to my backyard, and a net, so I can continue to get some bullpens in, get some throwing in and try to keep what I have so I don’t lose what I worked so hard to find.

“It’s been a full journey changing a lot about me to be able to get to get the results I wanted.”



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