Injury-riddled senior is unlikely hero for Gophers

Tim Klobuchar

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The bench had always been foreign territory to Gophers senior Bob Keeney. He was an all-state player in baseball, basketball and football during his senior year at Burnsville High School. He played in 49 games as a redshirt freshman for the Gophers and 57 as a sophomore.
Then, a back injury last year limited him to 40 games in center field and this season Keeney, a career .295 hitter (.337 Big Ten games), has had to contemplate finishing his standout Minnesota career as a spectator.
He recovered from back surgery in the fall just in time to start the season, but his lack of practice time hurt him both at the plate and at his new position, third base.
“It was one thing after another,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “He really never had a chance to work in the fall or winter on his defense, much less swing the bat.”
On April 4, Keeney fouled a ball off his right foot, breaking his big toe. That kept him out the next weekend against Penn State. When that injury healed, his back injury recurred just in time to knock him out of the lineup for the Ohio State series the next weekend.
In his absence, freshman third baseman Matt Scanlon had shown the ability (a .400-plus batting average and a cannon of a right arm) that will make him a four-year star — just like Keeney, or like Keeney was supposed to be. His senior year was rapidly deteriorating, and when asked if he ever thought the worst, he said he did.
“Yes, to be honest with you. There were times when I sat in the hotel room, another game had passed, and it seemed like I went through this last year,” Keeney said. Sometimes you think about that, like maybe I’m going to hobble out of the lineup in my last year of competitive baseball.”
Keeney got back into the lineup last weekend against Illinois and played mostly second base. But he hit as poorly (1 for 11) as his teammates, and his batting average sank to .265. Even worse for Keeney, Scanlon’s stellar play was making him expendable as a third baseman, and Anderson wondered if it was worth it to keep Keeney at second. His indecision still lingered before Saturday’s first game against Iowa.
Anderson did start the switch-hitting Keeney at third against a left-handed pitcher, keeping Scanlon’s left-handed bat on the bench. When he came to the plate in the fourth with the Gophers trailing 5-4, Iowa made a pitching change, bringing in a right-hander and forcing Keeney to hit from his weaker left side.
Anderson said he considered pinch-hitting for Keeney, but left him in. Keeney relieved the doubt when he smoked a single to center to bring in the tying run. He hit another RBI single later in the game and added two hits, including a double, in the second game. He ended his day 4-for-4 with two walks and was hit by a pitch. The only time he was retired was on a sacrifice bunt in the first game, which didn’t count as an at-bat.
During Sunday’s second game Keeney starred for the Gophers, hitting his fourth and fifth homers of the season.
Other than his talent, Keeney’s success can be directly traced to one other important thing — his health.
“It’s the first time in the last two or three weekends I’ve felt really healthy,” Keeney said. “That just brings confidence when you know your body will do what you want it to at least once in awhile.”
After what he’s gone through, Keeney’s glad just to be in the lineup, even though he might have to shuttle between positions.
“I think 14 (Anderson’s number) trusts me anywhere,” Keeney said. “I’ve had enough repetition at third, second and the outfield that he wouldn’t hesitate to put me someplace I hadn’t been in awhile, and I think I’d be able to do it.”
Keeney was right, only he probably didn’t think one place Anderson was considering putting him was in the dugout. That would’ve been one of the more unpleasant duties Anderson has had.
“The last couple of years have been tough because of his injuries,” he said. “I think it’s been hard for him. It’s been up and down.”