Keppinger hopes for big league chance

Jeff Keppinger is hitting .265 at Norfolk.

Few players exude the type of confidence that Jeff Keppinger does. But then again, few players have had the type of minor league career that Jeff Keppinger can boast about.

After being selected in the fourth round by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2001 draft, Keppinger has had success at every level of baseball, from Single-A all the way to the Majors.

Coming over to the Mets organization in the Kris Benson deal, Keppinger saw 33 games of action with the Mets in late in the 2004 season, and went .284 with three homeruns and nine runs batted in. He remembers the experience fondly.

"It was a dream come true," Keppinger said. "I've always wanted to play in the Big Leagues, and I actually got the opportunity, and actually got the opportunity to start. It was great."

However, he failed to stick with the Mets, yielding second base to highly touted Japanese import Kaz Matsui. But he came back to Norfolk in 2005 with a vengeance, finishing the year with a .337 average and 29 RBI in just 63 games.

But his impressive season in 2005 was cut short. On a bang-bang play sliding into second, Keppinger suffered a depressed fracture at the head of the left tibia; the injury sent him to the DL where he remained for the rest of the year. With the type of injury he had, the rehabilitation time is usually six to eight weeks.

"It really wasn't that bad," said Keppinger about the rehab. "I just laid on the ground for six weeks. And then I went back, and it was fine."

It was his first major injury of his career, and it put a strong season to rest. Keppinger took it in stride, and maintains that he had few expectations of himself coming back from a big injury. He knows he has big league ability, but he's taking the time to get back to where he was before it all happened.

"I'm just here to get my eyes and hands back," said Keppinger. "I want to get back to where I was."

Hitting coach Howard Johnson was concerned that his injury could limit his mobility, but his doubts have been laid to rest.

"I've seen him on his way back, and he's fine," said Johnson. "He's shown the same mobility, and has even improved, so the injury is behind him."

So far this year, the numbers say that Keppinger has struggled at the plate, and is hitting under .300 in the minors for the first time since his first year in Single-A. But he remains confident in his hitting, and believes he still on track despite what the numbers show.

"My numbers aren't there, but you know, numbers don't always tell the whole story," said Keppinger.

One skill that is valued by Major League managers is the ability to play multiple positions; Keppinger fits that mold, as he has split time between second and third this year. Although a true second baseman, he has confidence he can play at the hot corner.

"I'm definitely most comfortable at second, but third base isn't really that tough," said Keppinger.

With the collection of skills that Keppinger has, it is no doubt he will find his way on to a Major League team sooner or later. But it will be his intangibles that will help him become a mainstay. Johnson knows what he brings to the table.

"Keppinger, he's an extension of the coaching staff, he really knows the game," said Johnson. "He loves to talk the game in the dugout, and on the field, he's the captain of the infield.

"He's what we call a ball player."

Despite his relatively slow start, Keppinger believes he has what it takes to get to the Majors. His experience with the Mets in 2004 gave him one taste, and he feels he has done everything to earn another one.

"I feel I'm ready; I feel I can handle it," Keppinger said.

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