HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) _ When talk turns to who possesses the best “stuff” on the University of Southern Mississippi pitching staff, senior right-hander J.C. Keys is in that conversation.
“We all know that he’s a 90 (miles per hour) to 93 (mph on his fastball), who can touch 94, with a power breaking ball and a change-up that can offset some hitters at times, and disrupt some timing,” USM coach Scott Berry said.
The catch with Keys has been consistency, not only appearance to appearance or even inning to inning, but from out to out.
At times, Keys has dominated, like his one-run, one-hit, seven-strikeout effort over eight innings at Western Kentucky University two years ago.
At other times, a walk, an error, a hit-by-pitch, has led to a rapid unraveling leading to an unexpectedly quick exit.
But both Berry and USM pitching coach Christian Ostrander believe that the Oak Grove High School product is suitably seasoned to handle a role at the back of the bullpen, including the one position that demands consistency perhaps most of all: closer.
“His stuff is, arguably, some of the best on the staff,” Ostrander said. “Undoubtedly, he has closer stuff, but you want to know, when that closer comes in, that it’s going to be there.
“But this is his senior year. He’s experienced. He’s been in the fire, man, so he knows.”
Indeed, and the 5-foot, 10-inch, 173-pound Keys said he’s worked through the fall and preseason on being consistent.
“This fall and through the spring, that was my biggest thing,” Keys said. “At my exit interview from last season with Coach Berry, he said the biggest thing with you is your consistency. So, my whole motto for this year was to be consistent, to work on being consistent.
“That’s the one thing I want to be this year, be consistent and be reliable when called on.”
The first call could come Friday, when the Golden Eagles open the 2018 season by welcoming Purdue University to Pete Taylor Park for a three-game series. Friday’s first pitch is scheduled for 4 p.m.
A consistent Keys would be a big boost to the back end of a bullpen that spread 13 saves among six players in 2018, including one by Keys.
“I’ve told him, ‘I just want you to go out there and let your stuff compete and not worry about length (batters faced),” Ostrander said. “We talked about focusing on a one-inning deal in the fall.
“I’m just trying to give him freedom, to go out there, trust your stiff and let it happen. Whether that’s the last three outs in the ninth, or three outs in the seventh, we’ll just see how that all goes.”
Berry said Keys has the talent.
“He’s certainly got a smooth, electric arm, but he’s got to throw strikes,” Berry said. “That’s the bottom line. If you look at the history of J.C., he’s always been better in shorter stints. Then, in the times that we’ve tried to extend, he’s better the first couple (innings), and then kind of starts hitting a wall.
“But f you had to designate one guy as our closer, yes, that would be him.”
Berry said Keys’ experience could help him take that leap.
“When you’re talking about a player, the thought is as he gets older, he gains more experience, so he understands things and understands how to correct things,” Berry said. “Those senior years, that’s where you see those jumps take place, and the reason you see those jumps is that he has age, he has knowledge on his side. At a younger age, he’s still trying to figure it out.”
Keys said he been grateful for the support from his coaches.
“It’s really big, knowing that they have the faith in me to take that role, and as a senior, as a leader on this team, to take on that position,” Keys said.
Ostrander said he thinks Keys is ready.
“We’ll see how that translates and how that role develops for him,” Ostrander said. “I feel good about it. I think the world of him. He does everything right, and I just believe that it’s his time.”