Jeff Keppinger happy to be penciled in
Reds infielder finally gets a shot to play every day
After 34 games, Jeff Keppinger rested.
For the first five weeks of the season, Keppinger was a constant in Cincinnati's lineup, the only player to appear in every game. He also was the Reds' most dependable batter, hitting .444 with runners in scoring position to lead the National League. His strikeout ratio of one for every 20.3 at-bats was among the best in the league.
Not bad for a journeyman infielder who passed through three other organizations with barely a second look before becoming an important player for the Reds.
"That's baseball," Keppinger said. "One team's trash is another team's treasure. I'm grateful the Reds gave me this chance."
When he started to look a little wilted, manager Dusty Baker decided to give his shortstop a day off.
"Kepp needs it," Baker said. "We're going to wear him down. He plays every day."
The day off preceded a scheduled day off for the Reds and then a rainout -- three days without a game.
"My spring vacation," Keppinger said. "Being an everyday player, you don't like to sit out three days."
He returned refreshed with eight hits in three games against the Mets, including five in one game and hits in seven consecutive at-bats.
Keppinger led all Major League utility players with a .332 batting average last season but never secured a full-time spot in the lineup. Then, when Alex Gonzalez's fractured knee was slow to heal, Baker plugged Keppinger in at shortstop and, until Game No. 35, he remained there.
"He seized the opportunity," said Baker, who marvels at Keppinger's work ethic. "This guy is one of the first ones here to the park. He studies. He's almost the first one on the bench everyday before the game starts. He wants to take advantage of the situation. Half the time, it's hard for me to beat him to the bench. He's sitting there, watching the pitcher warm up and thinking and getting his mind ready for a ballgame. That's very refreshing."
Keppinger downplays his contributions.
"You're going to have good weeks and bad weeks," he said. "I'm scrappy and I'm intelligent. Intelligent is more important."
Keppinger has always worked at his craft, and his dedication has paid off. Undrafted out of high school, he went to the University of Georgia, where he batted .380 over three years and helped the Bulldogs reach the 2001 College World Series. He hit .500 in 10 NCAA tournament games that year with nine home runs and 16 RBIs, and went 4-for-9 in the CWS, where he hit a two-run homer off USC's Mark Prior.
Pittsburgh picked Keppinger in the fourth round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft. He showed a lively bat in two full Minor League seasons with the Pirates and was hitting .337 in the first half of 2004 when he was shipped to the Mets.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity with the Mets conducting a revolving door of auditions at second base. Within a week, Keppinger had his first Major League hit and had homered in consecutive games. There were a couple of three-hit games and a pair of five-game hitting streaks.
Assigned to Triple-A Norfolk at the start of 2005, Keppinger was hitting .337 when he broke his leg in a collision at second base. Now viewed as damaged goods, he was shuttled off to Kansas City where he got the call in August of that season, and, a couple of weeks later, delivered a three-run, 12th-inning home run to beat the Red Sox in Fenway Park. It was his first Major League hit in two years.
Again, though, Keppinger was moved along, this time to Cincinnati. He was hitting .368 -- he has batted better than .300 in every one of his professional seasons save his first -- when the Reds called him up, first as a fill-in and now as a full-time player.
The key to his newfound success, Keppinger said, is playing every day. Well, almost every day.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.