It turns out that the Biloxi baseball team and its top notch transfer, Colten Keith, were worthy of all the preseason buzz.
The Indians topped Gulfport (12-9, 3-3) in a 6-3 game Friday night to push their record to 17-2 overall and 6-0 as the only undefeated team remaining in Region 8-6A.
Expectations went up dramatically for an already strong Biloxi squad when Keith transferred in for the 2018-19 school year after already establishing himself as one of the best players in the state of Arizona and one of the nation’s top young prospects as a sophomore .
As a junior at Biloxi High, Keith has proven to be an impressive centerpiece of a deep lineup. With a 2-for-3 night at the plate on Friday, the junior third baseman/shortstop improved his batting average to .520.
Keith, who hits from the left side and throws right-handed, hit .510 with seven homers and 57 RBIs in 29 games last year at Verrado High School in Buckeye, Arizona.
Pitchers in Mississippi have done their best to keep him in check by throwing as many off-speed offerings as possible, but Keith has still managed to tear it up at the plate. He has yet to homer this season, but he has seven doubles, four triples and a team-leading 24 RBIs.
While he’s not clearing the fence as much as a junior, that’s all by design.
“I worked a lot this offseason on opposite field, driving the ball the other way,” Keith said. “I’ve been implementing that in my game a lot. I’ve probably had three or four doubles in the opposite gap, which is a great improvement from last year. I haven’t really been working on the power numbers. I’ve been trying to get my approach down right and get ready for the playoffs.”
Biloxi coach Eddie Lofton isn’t surprised to see opposing teams working their way around Keith, who is by far the Biloxi player most likely to be issued a walk with a total of 22.
“They’re pitching him right,” Lofton said. “I wouldn’t throw this guy middle, in. Everybody throws him middle, away. Everybody throws off-speed. They try to throw the changeups away. That’s just smart coaching.”
Where Keith may be at his most impressive is when pitchers manage to get two strikes in the count, and both of his hits came in that situation on Friday night.
“As two-strike guy, he’s as good as anybody,” Lofton said. “Obviously, he’s one of the better guys I’ve ever coached in my career. With two strikes, you’re just not worried. He’s going to get out, but everybody is going to get out in the game of baseball. He has a clue up there. He’s never really surprised. He’s always looking for the pitch he can get off on, but he’s also looking for the pitch that he can make contact. When he gets good barrel on it, it’s tough defend because he hits with a lot of pop.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Keith has also been a dominant relief pitcher, striking out 40 and walking four in 19 2/3 innings. With just one earned run allowed this year, he has an ERA of 0.36.
The Arizona State commit pitched a 1-2-3 seventh Friday night to close out the win. His fastball usually sits between 89-92 miles per hour and has touched as high as 94.
“Plus, he’s got that slider,” Lofton said. “When he’s got that working, you’re looking for 90 and he breaks off an 82 mile-an-hour slider, and that’s tough.”
Biloxi is much more than a one-player team and that bodes well for the squad’s chances in the postseason.
Senior outfielder/pitcher Nick Skaggs has proven productive batting cleanup behind Keith. He was 1-for-3 on Friday with an RBI single that brought home Keith in the fifth inning.
“When he’s in front of me, I know he’s going to get on base and I’m going to have a chance to get some runs in,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs entered Friday’s game hitting .345 with a team-leading four homers and 23 RBIs.
As Biloxi’s Tuesday night starting pitcher, Skaggs is 2-0 with a 2.59 ERA in six appearances.
Friday night’s starter was fellow senior Matthew Delano, who improved his record to 6-0.
“(Skaggs and Delano) are doing everything we’ve asked them to do,” Lofton said. “If they get us through five, we can come with Colten in the sixth or seventh. That’s all we ask for.”
Biloxi’s senior-heavy team has several other experienced bats in the lineup like leadoff man Conner Platt (.364), catcher Caleb Wood (.310), second baseman Cade Mohan (.378), first baseman Heath Schmidt (.288) and shortstop Ryan Roch (.327).
“The guys feed off each other, play with a lot of energy,” Lofton said. “Once we get the ball rolling, we’re tough because we can make some things happen because of our speed and the things we do to cause a little chaos.”