When he first touched a baseball, a passion was born.
As far back as he can remember, Nick Keener loved pitching. More precisely, he enjoyed pitching in big games when the pressure was highest.
As the years went by, Keener established himself as an elite relief pitcher and embraced entering games with runners on base before slamming the door. Still, the man who always has thrived in these heart-pounding moments could find no words when he received the biggest call of his life Friday night.
Keener is now a member of the Los Angeles Dodger family.
The Dodgers selected Keener in the 10th round with the 304th overall pick in Friday's Major League Baseball draft. A dream truly has come true.
"When I got the phone call I was speechless. I was at a loss for words. It's a pretty big thrill to say the least," Keener said. "I'm so blessed to have the opportunity and I'm going to work as hard as I can to make the most of it."
Keener concluded his junior year at Mansfield University last month after transferring from Division I Coastal Carolina. He was the first player chosen from the PSAC Conference and is the first Mansfield player to be selected since Eric Baker was picked in the 28th round of the 2005 draft. Keener also is the highest Mansfield draft pick since Tim Persing was taken in the 7th round of the 1990 draft.
Keener has thrown well at the collegiate level, but really opened eyes when he traveled to Camel Back Ranch in Arizona last winter and worked out for Major League scouts there and at The Baseball Factory. Not only did Keener throw well, he also learned more about mechanics and has used those tips to improve his off-speed pitches and velocity among other things.
The finished product impressed the Dodgers. Keener said he was expecting to be selected somewhere between the 20th and 30th rounds. Getting selected so high caught him off guard and only added to the thrill. A journey that started barely after he started walking has reached its summit. Keener, the son of Little?League CEO?Stephen D. Keener, now has a shot at the big-time.
"I've been working for this ever since I was a little boy. My grandfather (first-ever Williamsport coach Paul Missigman) is pretty proud of me and has been my pitching coach since I started throwing," Keener said. "It's a huge accomplishment and I'm so blessed to have the parents, family support and friends that I have. Everybody I have ever played with, every coach I've ever had has had an impact."
Keener said the next step is signing a contract and heading out to Arizona soon where all players the Dodgers drafted get together. According to MLB, the average signing bonus for a 304th selection is $135,000. Keener said the options being discussed have him either playing Rookie Ball in Arizona or playing Single A ball in Utah.
All that matters to Keener is having his foot in the door. He has the chance he always dreamed of and is eager to get to work.
"I'm definitely going to give it all I have," Keener said. "I've been working out the past couple weeks to get my body in shape throwing. I couldn't be much happier. Everyone I spoke to from the organization has been great. The goal now is to just keep moving forward."
Keener has been doing that since the day he learned to throw and catch. He shined at the youth level and was a perennial all-star on teams that usually made deep runs into states, regionals and even the World Series. The 5-foot-11 right-hander was equally successful at Williamsport, helping the Millionaires capture the 2008 District 2-4 Class AAAA championship and winning 12 games that year and in 2009.
Dave Cipriani not only coached Keener at Williamsport, but also throughout much of his youth career and was one of the first people Keener talked to Friday. While playing for Cipriani in 2008, Keener went 6-0 with four saves. He was at his best in the district championship, throwing 2 1/3 innings of perfect baseball as Williamsport rallied to beat Wyoming Valley West, 7-6.
Keener entered in a jam, chaos all around him that night. He felt right at home.
While Keener has started games in the past, he always has preferred coming out of the bullpen. He does not run from the challenges that entails. He embraces them.
That is good too since the Dodgers plan on using Keener out of the bullpen. He seems a natural fit and Adam Wells of "Bleacher Report" gave the Dodgers a high mark for drafting Keener, saying he could build a solid career as a reliever.
That is exactly what Keener is seeking.
"Once I started playing T-ball I immediately fell in love with the game," Keener said. "Once I got to to the (youth) minor leagues, I liked having the ball in my hand every pitch."
The boyhood dream is now a reality. Starting soon, Keener gets to live it every day.