Beavers praise third baseman for his consistency

OMAHA, Neb. -- Kavin Keyes kind of figured he was going to be a Beaver from the time he was, oh, about 7 years old.

His father, Bob, runs Mountain West Baseball School in South Jordan, Utah, and has known Oregon State coach Pat Casey for many years. Casey evidently did some effective early recruiting with the Little Leaguer.

"Pat and 'Kav' seemed to have a connection right off the bat," Bob Keyes says.

KEYESWhen Oregon State won back-to-back College World Series championships in 2006 and '07, Keyes was a promising middle-schooler.

"I'd watched them do their magic in Omaha, and it was in the back of my mind that I wanted to play for the Beavers," says Keyes, whose profile grew in high school when he was a member of the U.S. junior national team that included current major-league stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

Now Keyes (pronounced "Kize") is the underpublicized, if not under-appreciated, third baseman for an Oregon State team that hopes to stay alive in the College World Series with a losers' bracket victory over Louisville at noon PT Monday at TD Ameritrade Park.

While teammates Michael Conforto, Dylan Davis and Andrew Moore have made headlines and Ben Wetzler, Matt Boyd and Tyler Smith have gotten major league draft recognition, Keyes has quietly gone about his business, hitting over .300 and giving the Beavers stability at third base.

"I'm glad you're writing about him, to be honest," Conforto, the Pac-12 player of the year, told me Sunday. "Kavin gets overlooked a little. He deserves a lot of credit. He's a great player and we're happy to have him."

For his part, Keyes isn't complaining about a lack of attention.

"This whole thing is a team effort," he says. "If you were to ask Mike and Dylan if they were the reason why we're here, they'd say no, it's a team thing. They've contributed a lot. Their numbers show that. But it's a team game."

Keyes is batting .322 with an on-base percentage of .389, a luxury for Casey as the No. 7 hitter in his lineup. The 5-11, 200-pound switch-hitter has been a big-game player, too, matching his career high with four hits and scoring a career-best four runs in Oregon State's 12-4 victory over Kansas State in the middle game of the super regional. He had a triple and single in Saturday's 5-4 loss in the Beavers' CWS opener against Mississippi State and leads the team in postseason hitting with a .423 average.

"Kavin's not going to do too much to wow you," Conforto says. "He's not going to put up big power numbers. But Kavin is so consistent the way he plays. He doesn't make a whole lot of mistakes. Every once in a while he will wow you with a great play at third base. It's a big deal to have a guy in the 7-hole who can hit .330 for you consistently, someone who can get on base for us in that spot to set up something happening in the bottom half of the lineup."

It would probably surprise Conforto -- and maybe even Casey -- to learn that Keyes is fourth on the team in extra-base hits with 16, behind only Conforto, Davis and Danny Hayes and ahead of Smith, Ryan Barnes and Jake Rodriguez. Keyes leads the team with 16 errors, but he has been a solid defender in his first full season at third base.

"Kavin is a way better defender than people give him credit for," says Casey, who has written Keyes' name into the lineup at third and from Nos. 6-to-8 in the order every game since April 12. "His defensive problems have been from throwing the baseball rather than fielding it. He's really been a steady-eddy for us, and he has a knack for hitting the ball in places where people aren't."

Keyes, who turned 21 in April, graduated early from high school and enrolled at Oregon State for winter term 2011 in order to be eligible to play for the Beavers in what should have been his senior season of high school. He is the only player in Casey's 19 years to do so.

All Keyes did was hit .302, mostly as OSU's designated hitter, and earn first-team all-Pac-10 honors.

"I had a fun freshman year," Keyes says. "I got a bunch of opportunities to play well, and 'Case' did a good job of helping me get ready to play college baseball."

The 2012 was mostly a grind. Sometime during the season, Keyes suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder that would require July surgery. He played through it but, splitting time between first and third base, hit a pedestrian .226.

The injury "had a little bit to do with it, but I can't put it all on that," Keyes says. "I struggled last year. I tried to fight it and never really got in a rhythm. I had some games where I'd play good, then I'd get in another slump. I never really got consistent."

"It was Kavin's first turn as a full-time player, and there's a little pressure to being a defender," Casey says. "Plus, (opponents) pitched him a little different. All of a sudden, they're going, 'We're not going to just throw this guy a cookie.' He pressed. He started thinking about his batting average."

After last season, Keyes spent two weeks in the Cape Cod Summer League to see if the shoulder would feel better. When it didn't, he underwent surgery, returning to school in the fall healthy but still in rehab mode.

This season, Keyes has been a consistent threat at the plate and a player his teammates can depend upon at third base.

"Kavin has had a great year," Boyd says. "He's been a guy we can count on with the bat and has been the cornerstone of that infield."

"I think I've learned from the mistakes I made last year," Keyes says. "It's been a good year for me to grow up and become a better player."

Keyes, his teammates say, is the one most responsible for maintaining levity in the clubhouse.

"He's always keeping guys loose," Boyd says. "He's kind of a jokester."

"You wouldn't know it from his interviews," Conforto says, "but he's probably the funniest kid on this team. He's so goofy. If things ever get too serious, he'll make a joke about himself or something that's funny."

"Unfortunately, he's filled that role," says Bob Keyes with a chuckle. "That's a close-knit group of kids, with a lot of good friendships."

When Kavin first arrived at Corvallis, his living arrangements weren't yet taken care of. He spent a couple of weeks with the family of then-OSU assistant coach Marty Lees.

"They had some family photos on the walls," says Kavin's mother, Shauna Lubrani. "Kavin decided to replace one of them with a photo of himself. They didn't notice it for a few days. Finally, their 5-year-old said, 'Mommy, is that Kavin?' He likes to keep it light. He gets that from me."

"There are a lot of dynamics to this team," Conforto says. "We have a lot of leaders, guys to get us pumped up and focus. Kavin is one of those guys. He knows when to turn it on and off, has a great feel for what he needs to do. He's a junior; he's been through it."

Unlike seven teammates, Keyes -- not blessed with great speed, size or power -- was bypassed in the recent major-league draft. If it bothers him, he's not letting on.

"I'm happy to come back to Oregon State next year and try to do the same thing we did this year -- make it back to Omaha," he says. "

"He kind of expected it," Bob Keyes says. "I don't know if the injury kept some teams away. Another year in college isn't going to hurt him. He's not going to play baseball this summer. I'd like him to see him give that shoulder a rest and look forward to making another run at it next year."

Keyes' parents are grateful their son chose Oregon State.

"It's been a great experience for him," Bob Keyes says. "Pat has been real good to Kav. They've really stayed on him about the education, he's played some good baseball and made a lot of friendships."

"When Kavin first came to Oregon State, Pat took him under his wing," Lubrani says. "He took care of him to make sure he could make it through what was a major transition in his life. His time there has helped him grow mentally, physically, emotionally and in the baseball world. Kavin owes a lot to Pat Casey for his success."

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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