By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Ricky Knapp rode the bus from the team hotel, set up in the visitor’s locker room, watched the game from the third-base dugout and watched his team’s totals on the top line of the scoreboard.
But unlike the rest of his St. Lucie Mets teammates at Charlotte Sports Park, Knapp was home.
Knapp, a 23-year-old right-hander in the New York Mets organization and former Florida Gulf Coast University standout, is a 2010 graduate of Port Charlotte High School.
He didn’t pitch in Tuesday’s 10-5 win over the Charlotte Stone Crabs, and isn’t scheduled to during the three-game set — Knapp is the No. 4 starter in the rotation, so his next turn will be Friday when the Mets return home to face Palm Beach.
But even if he doesn’t get to step between the lines, it’s still good to be home.
“I was in high school when they built this facility (in 2009), so I used to come to Stone Crabs games,” Knapp said Tuesday. “So it’s cool to be back as a player, even for an opposing team.”
Knapp’s journey to Charlotte Sports Park on Tuesday started two miles west on FL-776 and Cochran Blvd. Pitching behind 2009 second-round draft pick David Holmberg for coach — and current athletic director — Bob Bruglio, Knapp was part of a dynamic run of Pirates pitchers.
He went 9-2 with an 0.69 ERA and 88 strikeouts as a junior in Holmberg’s last season with Port Charlotte, then 5-3 with a 1.42 ERA and 81 strikeouts as the team’s ace in his senior year. Knapp was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 44th round after high school but decided instead to attend FGCU, where he went 23-8 with a 2.92 ERA over three seasons.
That success has only continued since the Mets made him an eighth-round pick in 2013, as Knapp has gone 18-13 with an 3.58 ERA over parts of four professional seasons.
A move to the bullpen at the start of last season led to small hiccup — he was demoted to Low-A Savannah after starting with St. Lucie and compiling a 6.79 ERA in seven outings — but he finished the year strong after moving back into the Sand Gnats rotation, going 7-3 with a 2.56 ERA in 16 starts.
And at 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA over his first three outings for St. Lucie, he’s off to one of the best starts of his career this season.
“He didn’t throw as hard as David did. Ricky, even today, is more of a pitch-to-contact kind of guy,” Bruglio said. “But he’s a very, very smart pitcher. Works his offspeed, picks his spots very well.”
It doesn’t hurt that he comes from a baseball pedigree. Knapp’s father, Rick, pitched in the minors for five seasons between 1983-87 and currently serves as a major league pitching coordinator for the L.A. Dodgers.
Rick was the pitching coach for the Tigers when his son was in high school, so the Port Charlotte pitcher learned under the same tutelage as the likes of Detroit’s Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello.
“When you have the typical father-son relationship, when he’s teaching a kid sports, the thing is always, ‘Well, Dad, you don’t really know what you’re talking about,’” Knapp said. “I can’t say that. His job is to tell all these other pitchers what he’s talking about. It’s definitely a helpful tool.”
Despite growing up just a few miles from the Rays’ spring training home, Knapp has never pitched at Charlotte Sports Park. A proposed matchup with rival Charlotte in the stadium while he was in high school never panned out, and he was demoted from St. Lucie to Savannah right before a Mets’ series against Charlotte early last May.
But he’s kept close ties with the city he was raised in. His mother, Sharon — “She’s an angel,” he said — still has a house in Port Charlotte and has plans to attend a game this series. As do Bruglio and several other friends and faculty members from Port Charlotte, where Knapp was also a member of the school band.
Knapp also works out with former Pirates teammate Holmberg, who currently plays for the Double-A Birmingham Barons in the White Sox organization, in the offseason, and keeps in touch with former Charlotte standout Jake Noll, who is batting .371 as a junior at FGCU and could be drafted after this season.
“Port Charlotte isn’t exactly a baseball mecca,” Knapp said. “So to think that in a small area like this, that there’s a lot of talent … it’s cool to see.”
And while he missed his chance to pitch in front of the home crowd this week, there’s still time: The Mets come back to Port Charlotte in June and August.
METS 10, STONE CRABS 5
IN A NUTSHELL
The Stone Crabs offense broke out of a 26-run scoreless inning streak with a four-run fourth inning that gave Charlotte a 4-3 lead, but the Mets tagged the bullpen for seven runs over the final three innings to claim the victory.
HITTER OF THE GAME
Amed Rosario, Mets: The shortstop finished a double shy of the cycle, going 3-for-5 with a two-run triple and two-run home run as he did a lot of the heavy lifting for the St. Lucie offense.
Eighth: Rosario’s seventh-inning home run gave the Mets a 5-4 lead, but his eight-inning triple came as part of a four-run eighth inning that put the game away. A costly error by Stone Crabs shortstop Alec Sole led to St. Lucie scoring four unearned runs on four hits.
THEY SAID IT
Manager Michael Johns: “It’s baseball. Sometimes you hit and sometimes you pitch, and we’ve been pitching every game. We just haven’t been swinging the bat. Tonight we did, and I’ll take our chances with our pitchers every night.”