MIDDLETOWN — The final out found its way into first baseman Harry Azadian’s glove shortly after 2 o’clock Saturday at Palmer Field. Chad Knight had walked the first two Southington batters in the seventh inning, and not only did he figure a way to work out of his jam with a game-ending grounder to second baseman Chris Veneruso, the state’s premier baseball player figured out the perfect way to cut loose.
In one leaping motion, both Knight’s arms and legs climbed skyward. His glove left his left hand as his Staples cap simultaneously left his right hand. Glove and cap headed toward the sun as gravity caught Knight’s legs. He bent them at the knees, leaving Knight looking like a joyous pole vaulter on the way down after clearing 20 feet.
“It was ecstasy,” Knight said after he pitched Staples over Southington, 3-0, for its second CIAC Class LL title in three years. “Relief. Excitement. A celebration of this year’s team. Ecstasy.”
Some matters are meant to go full circle, of course, and this was one of them. The picture of composure since he first caught national attention as a 12-year-old, Knight was caught in pictures with an eerily similar leap in 2013 after he had pitched Westport to the Little League World Series.
That’s how long he has been on our state sports radar. Always, he is the same. A portrait of tenacity. A portrait of poise. A portrait of maturity and self-awareness.
He has a 3.8 GPA. He plays the piano. He is unerringly congenial. He insists on giving credit to everyone except himself. Drafted by the Yankees earlier in the week, he instead will head to Duke, and that makes all the sense in the world.
“We’re talking about a special kid here,” Staples coach Jack McFarland said. “I’ll even go so far to say that he’s maybe a once-in-a-lifetime kid that a coach gets.”
As a sophomore, Knight threw a five-hitter and hit a two-run homer to end Amity’s dream of a five-peat in the 2017 Class LL championship game. He was hitting above .500 with major power numbers and already had been named the 2019 Connecticut Gatorade Player of the Year when he started his eight-day encore last weekend.
A catcher when he wasn’t pitching, Knight entered in relief in the sixth inning of the quarterfinals against Trumbull. He picked up the win as the Wreckers charged back. Knight never put the ball down. He pitched a three-hit shutout against Cheshire in the Class LL semis — considered the state’s premier showdown — and he followed with another three-hit shutout against Southington.
“That was all him,” McFarland said. “He said, ‘Coach, this is my last high school game. I’m taking the ball. Nobody else is pitching.’ That’s Chad.”
“There was no way he wasn’t going to give me the ball,” said Knight, who finished 9-0 with an ERA south of 1.00. “That’s the bottom line.”
With everything on the line, he responded with 16 scoreless innings. He threw 88 pitches against Cheshire. He threw 98 against Southington: 20 in the first, 24 in the seventh and only 44 as he breezed through the middle five.
“A lot of work, but it’s the most rewarding thing in the world to hoist that trophy,” Knight said. “As crazy as it seems, if I could have lost and played another game with this team I would have taken that instead. I’m really going to miss this group of guys. I’m really going to miss all the coaches, all the people who supported Staples.”
Three of his teammates — Azadian, Charlie Roof and Drew Rogers — were teammates on that magical Little League run that ended in Williamsport one win short of the U.S. title. When asked about that, the picture of composure came as close as he would to losing it.
“I’m really overcome with emotion right now,” Knight said. “I don’t really remember the last time I was. To be able to play and win with those guys since we were 11 and 12, 2017 and now the FCIAC and state titles in the same year. We grew up watching Staples. We’ve dreamed about this.
“We watched guys like David Speer and Jack Hennessy win FCIAC. We watched the 2015 team get all the way here and lose to Amity. To do it not once but twice during our tenure at Staples means the absolute world.”
He is reminiscent of a young Orel Hershiser. He’s a gentleman and a thinker and a bulldog. Take the seventh inning. Knight had set down 12 in a row and 18 of 19 after allowing two hits in the first when, suddenly, he walked Jake Neuman and Jake Romano with no outs.
“Southington walked off three times in this tournament,” Knight said. “You don’t get to the final game unless you’re really well-coached and a really good team. Obviously, they put some pressure on that last inning. You step off the mound and see eight guys who are busting their butts and have been great all year long, it certainly calms you down.
“I didn’t feel like I was losing it. I definitely felt like for the first time maybe this was my last time in a Wrecker uniform, my last time playing high school baseball, and that’s certainly very emotional.”
He composed himself, because that’s what Chad Knight does. He got Kevin McIntyre to hit into a fielder’s choice. With runners on the corners, he caught Billy Carr looking at a third-strike fastball and coerced Devan Bade into the game-ending grounder.
“He was wearing down,” McFarland said. “I had someone ready, but Chad is Chad. He’s a problem-solver.”
Outstanding high school athletes such as Knight face pressure that few know. Everyone looks at them. Everyone looks at their stats. On this day, a sign saying “Duke Is A Basketball School” hung on the Southington side of the stands. When he walked those two in the seventh, the Southington student section chanted “Over-rated!”
“They don’t know you’re name unless you’re good, right?” Knight said. Immediately, he apologized.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t want to come across as arrogant. Southington is a great program with great fans. I’ve been a fan at our basketball games and I’m sure I’ve done it as well. It’s part of the game. You’ve got to get used to it. It’s the fun of the game. The coolest part of high school baseball is look at how all the fans from both schools are here. Your buddies are all here. That’s something you can’t recreate. That’s why high school baseball is so special.”
The Yankees, who have known Knight since Little League, picked him in the 31st round of the Major League Draft. It was a respect pick. Knight would have been taken in the fourth or fifth round if he weren’t set on Duke. It would have taken a spectacular offer to change that.
“It’s such an honor to be drafted by the Yankees,” Knight said. “They’re historic. They’re my favorite team. It means the world to me. I’m going to Duke and, hopefully, in three years we can re-evaluate and do it for real.”
You know what he did the night before he pitched? He went to Masuk’s Class L softball championship game. McFarland’s daughter was playing and Knight wanted to be there to show his support. And when he got up, he used a nasty curve to strike out 10 in a complete game that marks him as one of the state’s great champions.
The state’s best player on the state’s best team, and all he wanted to do was give credit to his teammates and coaches. And, oh yeah, leap for the sky.