• 75°

Consistency driving Tyler Keenan’s impressive freshman season at Ole Miss

With Colby Bortles out of eligibility, Tyler Keenan knew he had a chance to immediately step in for one of the more recognizable faces in recent memory at Ole Miss.

He also knew he’d have to prove himself in order to do it.

“I wasn’t really looking at just being given a spot,” Keenan said. “I wanted to come here and earn a spot like I have.”

He’s done more than that.

Playing in a conference that can expose even the most talented newcomers, Keenan has been a mainstay in the Rebels’ lineup, holding on to the starting job at third base to become one of Ole Miss’ more steady players and one of the top freshmen in the SEC. Keenan has started 38 of the 42 games he’s played and has performed equally well with the bat and the glove.

His average was as high as .359 as recently as early April and sits at .300 entering the Rebels’ final home series against No. 19 Auburn on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPNU), putting him on pace to be Ole Miss’ first everyday freshman third baseman to hit .300 or better since Chris Coghlan did it in 2004 (.302). Twice named SEC Freshman of the Week this season, Keenan has 14 extra-base hits, five home runs and 25 RBIs, crediting hitting coach Mike Clement for helping him fine-tune a simple approach at the plate.

“I’m just sitting on a pitch, and if I get it, I hit it,” Keenan said. “When I get down, I try to fight until I get a pitch I can actually handle.”

The bat has always played for Keenan, whose .427 career average at Cleveland High School in Clayton, North Carolina made him one of the nation’s top 300 prospects and the No. 16 overall recruit in North Carolina, according to Perfect Game. Keenan said he entertained offers from the homestate Tar Heels and Vanderbilt before ultimately signing with the Rebels with work to do defensively if he wanted to beat out fellow freshman Tim Elko to replace Bortles, a four-year letterwinner who started 184 career games before being drafted by the Detroit Tigers last summer.

“For sure, my offense was my strength,” Keenan said.

Keenan said he began taking ground balls on a daily basis in the fall and even put in some extra reps before and after practices in order to improve his hands and his range. He owns a .976 fielding percentage with just two errors all season, defending at a level that he called “not even close” to what it was during his final high school season.

“Tyler’s got a knack,” Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco said. “He plays really shallow much like Coghlan did and Lance Jones early when I first got here, guys that played really close to the batter. … It takes a special guy with great hands and great quickness because it really takes away the bunt. There are other guys that defend like Bortles from farther away, but it opens up a lot of field on the infield.”

The numbers speak to Keenan’s consistency, something that’s difficult to maintain for most freshmen getting introduced to the daily grind of arguably the most competitive college baseball conference in the country. Ole Miss witnessed that first-hand last season when the Rebels relied heavily on the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class headlined by Cooper Johnson, Grae Kessinger and Thomas Dillard, position players that each started at least half of the Rebels’ games a season ago. Johnson’s .213 average was the highest among them.

Keenan has been most productive against the stiffest part of Ole Miss’ schedule, hitting .301 in SEC play with all but one of his homers coming against league opponents. His .548 slugging percentage and .398 on-base percentage in conference play are both second-highest in a lineup that’s got Ole Miss in the thick of the national seed discussion with two series left before the SEC Tournament later this month.

Keenan has fit right in.

“Here’s a guy that has just been steady and you could argue our most steady guy,” Clement said. “He comes to the ballpark every day, plays and tries to get better. It’s offensively and defensively. I thought we would fall off defensively from Bortles to whoever was going to play third base this year, and he’s every bit as good as Colby. And I love Colby as much as anybody, but he’s every bit as good with his hands and with his feet. He doesn’t let the game speed him up.”

Said Bianco, “He’s been terrific for us there.”