Red-hot Keppler leads Iowa offense into midweek game

BY MATT COZZI | APRIL 18, 2012 6:30 AM

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Phil Keppler has solidified himself as one of Iowa's best hitters.

The senior outfielder and designated hitter is hitting at a .397 clip (27-for-68), which would rank first in the Big Ten if he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. He also has a home run and 11 RBIs, and he is second on the team with a .455 on-base percentage.

But before this came such setbacks as injuries, position battles, and a 0-for-35 streak to begin the 2011 season.

Keppler put those distractions in the rear-view mirror long ago, and he has become a consistent threat in the middle of the Hawkeyes' batting order.

"Phil worked hard on his strength, and he has stayed healthy," head coach Jack Dahm said. "… He's not trying to do too much. If you watch him, Phil is getting a lot of hits to left field, center field. His pitch selection and pitch recognition have been much, much better as of late."

Keppler played mostly first base last season, and he was hitless in his first 35 at-bats. That led to a .208 batting average on the season.

His offensive struggles carried over into the early part of this campaign, but that turned upside-down once Big Ten play began about a month ago. He has reached base in seven-straight games, tallied eight multi-hit contests, and had perhaps the best week of his career two weeks ago.

Keppler collected 11 hits in 15 at-bats over a five-game stretch between April 2-8 as the Hawkeyes went 3-2. The 6-4, 190-pound player was named Big Ten Player of the Week.

"Phil has had always had that capability," hitting coach Ryan Brownlee said. "He's had stretches — not to that extent two weeks ago, but he'll have certain times when he just tears the cover off the ball. It's great to see."

Even amid his struggles at the plate, the Manchester, Iowa, native remained optimistic. He attributes his newfound success and recent honors mostly to his approach, and said his fundamentals have changed minimally.

"Last year I started 0-for-35 so that obviously hurt my numbers, but after that I thought I hit fine," Keppler said. "I've lowered my hands a little bit, so my swing is a little bit flatter and I'm getting to balls I haven't been able to get to in the past. But really, I've just been doing a better job of looking for certain pitches in certain counts and taking advantage of those."

Keppler leads Iowa (15-16) into its midweek game against Bradley tonight. The Braves (18-14-1) are coached by Elvis Dominguez, a former assistant under Dahm both at Creighton and with the Black and Gold.

Follow DI baseball reporter Matt Cozzi on Twitter.

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