Last weekend, fans at UFCU Disch-Falk Field roared as Corey Knebel ripped the final pitch that popped up safely to center field and secured the Longhorns a 4-2 win and a trip to the College World Series. As ESPN cameras showed Knebel thrust a triumphant fist pump toward home plate, the Georgetown native’s friends at home saw someone they didn’t recognize.
“I’ve gotten more intense,” Knebel said. “My friends told me, ‘We’ve been watching you pitch, and that’s not you out there. You’re not that serious. When you get up to Omaha, give a smile or something.’”
Knebel is admittedly one of the more easygoing players on the team, but he said his personality has changed since becoming the Longhorns’ closer. He still messes around a little in the bullpen — just kicking up dirt and bouncing off walls to stay energized — but gets focused and more serious once it’s time to pitch.
“He has gotten more intense, especially once the game starts,” said third baseman Erich Weiss, Knebel’s roommate. “Once he goes in, you can tell he’s zoned in.”
Assistant coach J. Brent Cox, who closed for Texas during its 2005 national championship season, said Knebel’s intensity level is an even mixture between his goofiness and his understanding of his role on the team, and that the freshman uses it to his advantage.
“He’s a goofy guy by nature, and some people see it as taking pitches off and being lackadaisical, but he doesn’t care what any of the people in the stands think. He doesn’t care what the coaches think, and that’s right,” Cox said. “When you’re out there, you have to worry about you and that baseball and that hitter, and if you’re worried about everybody else, it takes away from your effort and what you’re trying to do.”
Knebel’s attitude isn’t the only thing that’s changed throughout season. The hurler is more precise with his pitches, especially with the breaking ball that he learned earlier this season, and can locate his fastball on either side of the plate. Cox said the freshman has developed the confidence and command that helps him come back and throw a breaking ball for a strike when he’s behind in a count.
“Now my thing is I’m more confident,” Knebel said. “I go in there and I think, ‘I’m going to beat this guy.’ I can throw it right down the middle, and something’s going to happen. I have faith in my pitches, and I know it’s going to work out.”
It’s interesting to see how Knebel’s freshman year has worked out at Texas because he’s accomplished so much without having any expectations at the start of the season. He is a finalist for several awards and was named the National Freshman Pitcher of the Year this week by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America.
“It’s really rewarding for us as coaches for him to come out and have this success, especially since he wasn’t our designated closer at the beginning of the year,” Cox said. “We knew he was good, but honestly no one expected this out of him.”
Knebel picked up his 19th save of the season in the final win over Arizona State in the Super Regional, which tied the Texas record for saves in a season. Cox also tied the record in 2005.
“Everybody’s giving me a hard time about him catching my record, but I’m very proud of him, and I hope he shatters it,” Cox said. “I hope he gets five more and we win the national championship.