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Thursday, August 22, 2013

C.R.'s Keller catches D-I train

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- It hasn't been that long since a high school in this Eastern Iowa city of about 127,000 good-natured folks produced a top pitching prospect that committed to play at one of the nation's premier NCAA Division I powerhouse baseball schools.

It happened, in fact, just in the last school year. Class of 2013 Cedar Rapids Washington High School left-hander A.J. Puk honored his commitment to the University of Florida and is already taking classes on UF's Gainesville campus in anticipation of the Gators' 2013-14 baseball season.

The next Cedar Rapidian who is in line to follow Puk to college baseball's big-time -- if the 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft doesn't come into play -- is Mitch Keller, a Xavier High School senior. Keller, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander, has verbally committed to the University of North Carolina.

Keller put his still-blossoming talents on display Aug. 18 when he threw three impressive innings on the final day of the Perfect Game Midwest Top Prospect Showcase at Perfect Game Field-Veterans Memorial Stadium. He recorded a personal-best 91 mph fastball (his heater sat between 87-89 mph) at the event, and pretty much accomplished what he set out to do before he even walked out to the mound.

"I wanted to get some exposure (in front of) some MLB scouts; I know there's quite a few here because there's a bunch of talent here," Keller told PG before his outing. "It's definitely important because I need to show that I've gained a few miles per hour on my velocity and all of my pitches have improved."

The PG Midwest Top provided an excellent platform for most of the top pitchers from the state of Iowa and other top guns from neighboring states on which to perform. With dozens of pro scouts and college coaches looking on, Keller rated among the best.

The 17-year-old Keller has attended eight PG showcases in the last two years, and has added 8 mph to his fastball since his initial appearance at the PG Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase at PG headquarters on Feb. 11-12, 2012. He was listed at 6-1, 173-pounds at that event, and his fastball topped-out at 83 mph, complemented by a 70 mph curveball and 75 mph change-up. His curve and change were clocked at 72 and 80 mph, respectively, on Sunday.

Six more PG showcases followed in rapid succession leading up to last weekend's Midwest Top, and Keller showed a steady progression at each one. He counted the 2012 Perfect Game Junior National Showcase in Minneapolis among his stops -- along with Perfect Game Field appearances at the 2012 Spring Top Prospect and 2012 Midwest Underclass showcases -- and by last October his fastball had reached a top velocity of 88 mph.

The PG Midwest Top was his fourth showcase event in 2013.

"They're all good experiences," Keller said. "All of these showcases have helped me, because when I was down (at the PG WWBA World Championship) the situations weren't as nerve-racking and I just wasn't as nervous. They all help you gain exposure and help you perform to the best of your abilities because you're with all the great talent.

"It's great; I've made a lot of friends coming out here and it's just really fun playing with them all."

It is Keller's understanding that the North Carolina coaching and recruiting staff -- led by head coach Mike Fox -- may have first noticed him at the 2012 PG Junior National Showcase, but it was at two events last October when the Tar Heels' interest really peaked.

Pitching for Iowa Select Navy at the 2012 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., the first week of October, Keller made one start, pitched seven innings of two-hit ball without allowing an earned run, and struck out 13 without issuing a walk.

Three weeks later at the prestigious PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., and pitching for the Mets Scout Team/St. Louis Pirates, Keller logged four innings over two appearances, allowed two hits and two earned runs (3.50 ERA), and fanned seven while walking three. He recorded those numbers facing most of the nation's top hitters from the class of 2013.

"That (appearance) really helped me a lot," Keller said of his 13-strikeout performance in Fort Myers, "and I got a lot of calls after that game and again after Jupiter. That's really when (North Carolina) got interested, and it was awesome. It was exciting because they were the No. 1-ranked program all season and then they made the College World Series. And it's just beautiful (in Chapel Hill) so it all felt right."

It really did take those autumn outings for Keller to earn his UNC scholarship offer. He spent the summer of 2012 playing for his Xavier High School team -- Iowa offers only a summer prep season -- and his numbers after what was his sophomore season were rather pedestrian: a 4-0 record and 3.73 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 35 2/3 innings of work. An Iowa kid typically needs to stand out a little more than that to get noticed by powerhouse D-I programs, and Keller did just that in Fort Myers and Jupiter.

Keller credits several people with helping him develop as a pitcher, but two in particular standout. One is his older brother, Jon Keller, a fellow right-handed pitcher. The other is Steve James, a Perfect Game coach and instructor who serves as the director of the PG Iowa Spring and Fall Wood Bat Leagues and is also the director of the PG Iowa Select Invitational.

Jon Keller is a 2010 graduate of Xavier High School who was ranked 58th nationally in his high school class when he graduated. He was an 11th-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2010 but decided to honor his commitment to the University of Nebraska -- there's that C.R. to D-I connection again -- and headed out to Lincoln.

He transferred to the University of Tampa (Fla.) before his junior season last year and helped the Spartans to the 2013 NCAA Division II national championship. Jon Keller signed with the Baltimore Orioles after they selected him in the 22nd round of the 2013 draft and is currently pitching with the Orioles' affiliate in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

"He's had a lot of influence on me," Mitch Keller said of his older brother. "This past winter he came home and he told me I needed to start lifting, so we started lifting together and I got stronger; that's when I noticed I had gained some velocity. He's coming back this fall after he's done (with his GCL season) and help me develop a slider, so that will be good.

"It's really exciting what he's doing now and he's doing really, really well."

James has worked with Mitch Keller for the past two years; he did not have an opportunity to work with Jon, but did get to see him pitch on many occasions. James noted there are similarities between the two brothers.

"Coming in, (Mitch) was just like his brother in that the arm worked well, but we did a couple of things -- just tweak and simplify, really," James said. "It didn't take long for that to work and after that it's just repeating the same things.

"There are similarities; the arm work is real good," he added. "Physically, Mitch is going to get big and strong like Jon ... and Mitch throws strikes and has feel for his breaker and a little bit for his changeup."

Said Keller: "I've had a lot of pitching coaches help me; Steve James helped me a lot and has helped me come a long way from where I was up to now."

Keller enjoyed a much better junior season for Xavier this summer, a campaign in which the Saints advanced to the Iowa Class 4A (big-school) State Tournament and finished with a 25-16 record after a first-round loss. Keller finished 5-5 with a 1.72 ERA after allowing 49 hits, striking out 91 and walking 39 in 69 1/3 innings.

He will continue to pitch into October again this fall -- he is playing for the premier Iowa Select Black squad in the PG Iowa Select Invitational tournament, which begins play Friday. The PG Iowa Select Invitational features 18 teams from Iowa and neighboring states, and games are played on weekends through Oct. 20.

The Iowa Select Black team is stockpiled with most of the top-ranked high school arms from the state, including right-handers Nick Biancalana (2014, Des Moines); Colan Borchers (2014, Le Mars); Zach Morrissey (2014, Ankeny); Brock Neuhaus (2014, Bettendorf) and, of course, Keller. 2013 Perfect Game All-American right-hander Keaton McKinney (2014, Ankeny) is also on the roster, but James doesn't know how often he will be with the team.

Left-handers Quinton Forrester (2014, Iowa City) and Nate Schweers (2014, Ankeny) are also on the staff. Forrester is especially intriguing, standing 6-foot-9 and weighing in at 240-pounds. His fastball reached 90 at the PG Midwest Top.

"I love it because, with all the Iowa kids we have, you just teach them simple stuff and they're just good enough athletes and they just go and their talents can show," James said of his Iowa-grown pitchers. "They relate to it, they pick it up real quick, and it was the same with (Derek) Burkamper and (A.J.) Puk ... and all of them that we work with; they get it and they're good enough athletes and good enough baseball players that they just take off."

James plans to send Iowa Select Black to the PG/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) in Goodyear, Ariz., Sept. 20-23 and to the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship in Cedar Rapids Sept. 27-30. It would need to win the latter in order to qualify for the PG WWBA World Championship.

Keller played in the Iowa Fall League in 2012 and pitched in the Iowa Spring Wood Bat League this spring. He found both experiences particularly rewarding.

"I don't think if I would have done Fall League or Perfect Game Iowa Select, I don't think I would have gotten as much exposure," Keller said. "Spring League definitely helps a lot, too; it gets you ready for the high school season and there's a bunch of scouts there, too."

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