Potomac Nationals outfielder Kevin Keyes made a big splash as one of the top home run hitters in the system with his play in 2011, and although the competition has ramped up in high Single-A, Keyes believes he is making progress in preparing for the better pitching he sees now at this advanced level.
"The Carolina League is an adjustment," Keyes said. "It is a harder league than the South Atlantic League. As a team, we are making adjustments that are making everybody better at the plate. We are starting to find our stride on offense. It is becoming a lot better."
Keyes crushed 17 homers with 65 RBIs in 85 games last season for low Single-A Hagerstown. His average was .263, with 22 doubles, one triple and 49 runs scored. This season, he is hitting .178, but has hit .250 in his last 10 games, with three doubles, two homers and 7 RBIs since May 2.
"The pitchers are a lot better," Keyes said. "They throw a lot more off-speed pitches in fastball counts. You have to make adjustments throughout the game. It is a learning curve. But it is very exciting learning curve. You get to learn more about your swing and how pitchers pitch you. It is good when you finally figure it out and it makes baseball that much easier."
The P-Nats also have a talented corps in the outfield alongside Keyes, with Randolph Oduber, Wade Moore and Michael Taylor, who becomes the outfield coach on the field during play.
"We are all a tight group out there," Keyes said. "We keep it loose and have fun. Michael Taylor directs us in center field, moving us. It makes us play a lot better. Not being up tight or whatever."
Keyes said he and his teammates rely on the coaching of manager Brian Rupp and hitting coach Marlon Anderson to help them have a plan in each at-bat.
"Rupp and Anderson have helped me out a lot," Keyes said. "Marlon has played 12 years in the big leagues, so he has seen it all. Rupp was a (manager) in the Carolina League last year, so he knows the struggles the hitters goes through in that league. He tells us to keep grinding it out in the cage and the hits will come. As of right now, they are, so hopefully they will keep coming."
Keyes said the Carolina League pitchers are not as predictable as what he saw at Hagerstown, so the opportunities to get a hittable ball have decreased. When you get that chance, you have to seize that pitch in your hitting zone.
"I have seen a lot more breaking balls," Keyes said. "But it is the pitchers that know how to pitch in this league. They have much more command of their off-speed and they are able to locate their fastball. It is more about getting a good pitch in a certain at-bat and not missing it. Because you get maybe one or two pitches an at-bat and that's it."
Keyes certainly looks the part of the home run hitter, standing 6-foot-3, 225 lbs. The former Texas Longhorn has made steady progress, and is the case with many of his fellow new promotions to Potomac, is getting used to what he might see the second time through the league this month.