By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - Not completely healthy even while earning All-SEC honors pitching for the 2015 Arkansas Razorbacks, and so plagued by a hip injury in 2016 and redshirting in 2017 after Tommy John elbow surgery, Keaton McKinney is proving himself fit again.
McKinney (5-1, 2.90 ERA in 2015; 1-5, 6.66 ERA in 2016) announced himself fit back on Arkansas’ Jan. 27 media day.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn so concurs he 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 three-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 said. “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 changeup 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.
Wilson runs to back up every infield position and is in the running to be the Opening Day third baseman after being unable to run anywhere last season upon inadvertently breaking his own leg.
During his 14th game and 29th at-bat of his .310 hard-hitting, but terminated 2017 campaign, Wilson hit one of the hardest foul balls 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 said. “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.
Wilson is pressing 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 considering the convoluted journey that he 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 football. My family has season tickets there, so I’m never going to lose that. But Arkansas baseball has always been in my heart.”
RAZORBACKS GARNER ACCOLADES
By the preseason vote of the SEC baseball coaches, the Arkansas Razorbacks have been picked to win the SEC West and were second by just one voting point to projected East champion Florida of winning the SEC overall championship, while Razorbacks Grant Koch, Blaine Knight, Jax Biggers and Dominic Fletcher have been All-SEC honored, it was revealed by the SEC’s Preseason All-SEC and prognosticating announcement Thursday by the SEC Office.
Van Horn’s Razorbacks received 90 voting points to be projected to win the West followed by Texas A&M, 72; Ole Miss, 62; LSU, 59; Mississippi State, 44; Auburn, 38 and Alabama, 20.
In the East, Florida, ranked No. 1 nationally by several college baseball polls, accumulated 91 voting points followed by Kentucky, 74; Vanderbilt, 72; South Carolina, 50; Georgia, 41; Missouri, 32, and Tennessee, 25.
The Volunteers are now coached by former Razorbacks assistant Tony Vitello.
Koch, the junior catcher from Fayetteville, finished last season voted first-team All-SEC and starts this season voted All-SEC first-team by the coaches.
Knight, a junior right-handed pitcher who is a two-year letterman, and Biggers, a junior shortstop from Missouri City, Texas, who lettered for Arkansas as a sophomore junior college transfer last season, were voted second-team All-SEC by the SEC coaches.
A sophomore center fielder, Fletcher last season not only was voted to the All-SEC Freshman team, but was named to the Freshman All-American teams of both Baseball America and NCBWA (National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association).