Keppinger’s a Keeper!

Jeff Keppinger

Yesterday Houston Astro utility infielder Jeff Keppinger jumped in there one more time as a major contributor to his club’s need for offense. Now hitting .391, Keppinger went 2 for 4 with a double, a run scored, and 3 runs batted in to pace the Astros to a 5-1 win over the Cardinals in St. Louis. The victory halted an eight-game, out-of-the-gate losing streak by the club, saving the Astros from a franchise history tie with the 1983 team for most consecutive losses to begin a season.

Keppinger played shortstop in yesterday’s game, but he is perfectly capable of filling in adequately at second base, third base, or in the outfield. Teammates laud his attitude and preparation for all games on the schedule. His 2009 year with the Astros already had shown his ability to play clutch ball as a late in the game or last inning pinch hitter, sometimes being the guy whose final at bat produced the hit that won the game for the Astros.

What a grab he was when the Astros obtained him in a minor deal with the Reds prior to the 2009 season. As others have pointed out, Keppinger is exactly the kind of guy you need on a club that is committed to a 12-man pitching roster. That commitment leaves room for only five extra players and one of them will always need to be a catcher. With Keppinger, you get the kind of guy who possesses the attitude, the versatility, and the capability of filling in on offense or defense, in the infield or the  outfield, as needed. Who could ask for anything more.

If the Astros’ 2010 season had to end after only nine games, and there may be some gloomy souls out there who still wish that it could, the rest of us would be torn between choosing star center fielder Michael Bourn or steady backup Jeff Keppinger as the club’s most valuable player in 2010. Through games of April 15th, Bourn is hitting .394 and Keppinger is good for .391. No one else is close.

How did we get this guy? Give some credit to General Manager Ed Wade and the Astros scouts who touted him as a choice pick up when he became available in Cincinnati. Keppinger appears to be one of those talented guys who just seemed to slip through the cracks several times over as clubs dealt him away in trades that were governed by factors beyond his individual ability. It happens all the time.

Jeff Keppinger originally was drafted out of the University of Georgia as a shortstop by the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2001. He was subsequently traded to the New York Mets in 2004, then to the Kansas City Royals in 2006, and next to the Cincinnati Reds in 2007. He was always the back up guy who played adequately, but not enough to distract from or compete with some other “starting” player at either shortstop or second base. At New York, current Astro second baseman Kaz Matsui was his obstacle to playing more often.

Then, when Keppinger landed in Houston last year, he wasn’t going to replace either Miguel Tejada or Kaz Matsui at the keystone bag, but he did prove to be a more than adequate platoon partner with Geoff Blum at third base and the go-to guy when it came to facing lefties. Through the 2009 season, Jeff Keppinger has built a .341 batting average against lefthanders. If that kind of production doesn’t buy a guy a few starts somewhere, I can’t imagine what else might move the participation level over what ordinarily falls to good glove men backup types over the long season. Keppinger earned more playing time in 2009 by virtue of his building offensive record as a producer and by his big moments in key games against Chicago and St. Louis.

In his six-season MLB career (2004, 2006-2010), to date, Jeff Keppinger is batting .281 with 20 homers in 358 games and 1,204 official times at bat. The other good news is that Keppinger only turns 30 on his April 21st birthday next week. With a little luck, and a few grains of destiny dust, Jeff Keppinger could be around Houston long enough to help the Astros build their way back into NLC  contention for years to come.

At any rate, Jeff Keppinger’s contributions to stopping the season-start tailspin of 2010 will not be soon forgotten.

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