Brand Iowa's name behind the plate

BY BEN SCHUFF | APRIL 18, 2012 6:30 AM

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Keith Brand has raised some eyebrows during his time with the Iowa baseball team. The causes have been both positive and negative.

But lately, it's been more good than bad.

Brand has started seven-consecutive Big Ten games at catcher for the Hawkeyes, and he will get his 13th start of the year tonight against Bradley.

A significant reason for this has been the lengthy recovery period for fellow catcher Dan Sheppard. Iowa's primary catcher underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow on March 20, 2011. While Sheppard has started a team-high 20 games behind the plate this season, he said he's still not back to 100 percent.

That has opened the door for Brand, who's performing well given the start he had to his Iowa career.

The 21-year-old came to the Hawkeyes as a walk-on in 2010. He redshirted that season — his main duty was that of bullpen catcher — and was unimpressive upon arrival.

"He could throw, but he literally could not hit the ball out of the infield," manager Jack Dahm said. "I was like, 'Man, how is this guy ever going to play?' "

The Northbrook, Ill., native wasn't recruited out of high school. In fact, it was a phone call from his American Legion coach Mitch Stewart that landed Brand on the team, Dahm said.

"Freshman year, I came in here as a walk-on — I was awful," Brand said. "Coming in here, I had only seen a couple of guys throw 90 miles per hour. I was way behind everyone. To be honest, coming in, I really couldn't even hit the ball."

Dahm noticed a lot of progress by the end of that season, though, and remembered telling Brand he was one of the most improved players on the team by year's end.

This year, Brand is hitting .270 in 37 at-bats. He's tied for the team lead with 6 RBIs in Big Ten play, and his .429 on-base percentage is third-best among his teammates with more than 10 starts.

Several developments could explain Brand's relative rise as a Hawkeye. He has improved in the batter's box, which he attributed to an approach of "realizing what type of player I needed to be to be successful at this level."

Brand also is now using a shorter bat. The right-handed hitter swung a 33-inch bat earlier in his career, holding it at the end by the knob. Now, he's using a 32-incher and choking up on it about an inch.

"It's really helped me stay short to the ball and be able to hit 90-mph fastballs and sliders," he said. "It's an adjustment I had to make to be successful at this level."

Both Brand and Dahm credited everyday work alongside Sheppard in practice for improvements behind the plate. The two catchers both talked about a practice routine they call the "mirror drill," which Brand described as setting up "across from each other and mirroring what the other one does in terms of blocking."  

"I've just been sticking to my approach, doing what I do when I get the opportunities and taking advantage of those opportunities," Brand said. "Luckily, I'm in a position where I'm getting more of those opportunities and getting more of a chance to prove myself."

Follow DI baseball reporter Ben Schuff on Twitter.

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