FAYETTEVILLE - Not completely healthy even while earning All-SEC honors pitching at a 5-1, 2.90 earned run average clip for the 2015 Arkansas Razorbacks, and so plagued by a hip injury to be 1-5, 6.66 ERA ineffective in 2016 and redshirting in 2017 after Tommy John elbow surgery, Keaton McKinney is proving himself fit again.
McKinney announced himself fit back on Arkansas’ Jan. 27 Media Day.
Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn so concurs he Thursday penciled the junior right-hander to follow Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell in the season-opening starting rotation when Bucknell University visits Baum Stadium for the Feb. 16-18 3-game series.
McKinney was set to pitch in Thursday afternoon’s scrimmage, Van Horn said earlier in the day at the Swatters Club luncheon for Razorbacks baseball boosters at the Fayetteville Hilton Gardens.
Van Horn told boosters that McKinney “has worked as hard as anybody I’ve been around” rehabbing his hip and elbow and getting his entire body into pitching shape.
“He looks like a full grown man now,” Van Horn told the boosters Thursday. “There’s no baby fat on him at all. He feels he had something taken away from him and he wants it back. You might see him start that next weekend.”
After the luncheon Van Horn told media: “I mean his velocity is 90-93. He didn't throw that hard as a freshman. His change-up is really good. If he throws his fastball for a strike, and he's got a better curveball. We'd start him (against Bucknell) because we don't want to bring him out of the pen right now, and be up and down warming up. He might only go three innings, but if anybody deserves a start it would be Keaton.”
McKinney has long yearned for this tentatively scheduled start and anticipated it would come much earlier than most would have anticipated after his elbow surgery.
“This is probably the healthiest I’ve been since I was probably a junior in high school,” McKinney said on Media Day. “It makes a big difference. I can be confident when I’m on the mound that my hip or my arm is not going to hurt me and I can push off. It makes that big of a difference. The hip is completely healthy and my elbow I’ve hit the stride here where I overcame little tightness and soreness which is part of the process. I’m starting to feel really good.”
Van Horn feels good about McKinney and another rehabbed Razorback, infielder Hunter Wilson of Spiro, Okla. Wilson runs to back up every infield position and is in the running to be the Opening Day third baseman after unable to run anywhere last season upon inadvertently breaking his own leg.
During his 14th game and 29th bat of his .310 hard-hitting but terminated 2017 campaign, Wilson hit one of the hardest foul off his shin for a season-ending fracture he thought was just bruise.
“We didn’t know he had broken his leg and he didn’t, either,” Van Horn told Thursday’s luncheon. “He just said, ‘I can’t walk.’ They call him Cowboy because he’s half nuts.”
Nothing less than a broken leg was going to knock “Cowboy” out of the saddle after the line drives he was hitting right at fielders “started finding holes.”
“I got hot and bang and it’s all over,” Wilson said. “But I got a medical redshirt out of the deal. I’m still a junior and I’m thankful for that. Things happen for a reason. Last summer I stayed here and got healthy and worked out every day and hit the weights and got stronger and was strong through the fall.”
So strong still that the team’s most versatile utility infielder (“You give me a glove and I can play it,” Wilson said) now presses slick-fielding sophomore incumbent third baseman Jack Kinley for the starting job.
“I would say those two are battling it out in there from Day One,” Van Horn said. “They're both very good defenders and they both hit left-handed. You'll see them both play this weekend because it's been a great competition.”
While “heartbroken,” he couldn’t be a part of last year’s team in the SEC Tournament and Fayetteville Regional, Wilson relishes an extra year in Fayetteville considering the convoluted journey that Spiro’s All-State shortstop took to get here starting first at Stephen F. Austin then transferring to Eastern Oklahoma State Junior College from where he readily answered Van Horn’s call.
“Growing up as a kid, this is where I came to watch baseball,” Wilson said. “Right up here. I went to Norman to watch (Oklahoma Sooners) football. My family has season tickets there so I’m never going to lose that. But Arkansas baseball has always been in my heart.”