Sports

Cedar Rapids natives A.J. Puk and Mitch Keller will be ready when MLB starts again

Oakland Athletics' A.J. Puk runs a drill during spring training baseball practice, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Mesa, Ari
Oakland Athletics' A.J. Puk runs a drill during spring training baseball practice, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

CEDAR RAPIDS – Perspective.

From a purely professional standpoint, Mitch Keller and A.J. Puk are probably frustrated to the hilt right now. Their situations are exactly the same.

They’re Cedar Rapids guys: Keller a Xavier High School graduate, Puk a Washington grad. They made their Major League Baseball debuts last season and were on schedule to open the 2020 season in the big leagues for the first time.

Keller is with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Puk the Oakland Athletics. It looked like they’d be part of their respective club’s starting pitching rotations, too.

That’s huge, an unprecedented thing for kids from this city.

Instead both are back home here in Cedar Rapids right now, riding out the COVID-19 pandemic with family. They know that’s exactly where they need to be.

“First and foremost, as much as it is frustrating, this is totally the right move,” Keller said. “I would feel super uncomfortable if we were playing right now, just the way things are going. We’re talking about a sport here. It’s frustrating (for us), but it’s more frustrating to see people not caring about social distancing and all that stuff that goes with this. Lives are at stake. We can pick up baseball anytime, but someone’s life can’t come back.”

Opening day for the first time is one of the coolest things ever for a ballplayer. The pomp, the circumstance, getting introduced to a sold-out, or near sold-out crowd as you trot from your dugout to the third or first-base line.

That still will come for Keller and Puk sometime. They know it.

“It’s going to be opening day when the season resumes, so we’ll still get that feeling,” Puk said. “Instead of March 26, it could be June 15 or something like that. It will still be cool making the opening-day roster. It’ll just maybe be a shorter season this year.”

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“I was very hopeful this was going to be my first opening day in the big leagues,” Keller said. “That is a huge accomplishment in baseball, to open up with the major league club. People dream about that. It’s one thing to be called up, but it’s another to make the team out of spring training. To know that you were one of the 26 guys good enough to make it … But there will be a time in the near future, whether that’s this year or next year, where I will have an opportunity. I am just trying to stay ready for that right now.”

Both guys are doing their best to stay in shape. They can get a run in anywhere, and running is a huge thing for a pitcher, obviously.

Both have brothers they can throw to. Jon Keller is a retired former pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles organization, Owen Puk a junior at Marion High School who has committed to play college baseball at Florida International.

It’s a bit more tricky with the Kellers. Jon Keller is immunocompromised as a diabetic. Mitch Keller said they played catch the other day, and Jon wore a batting glove on his throwing hand that he will continually wash, so that he doesn’t actually touch the baseball.

“We make sure we are 15 feet from each other, at least, at all times,” Mitch said. “Baseball is kind of an easy sport to keep your distance, in that regard.”

“I am just approaching it like it’s the offseason. Just an extended offseason,” Puk said. “Still able to get my lifting in, my running in. I’m able to throw. So I’m just approaching it like it’s the offseason still.”

Keller, 24, was a second-round draft pick of the Pirates out of high school in 2014. He made a steady ascension through the minor leagues and made his major league debut May 27 at Atlanta against the Reds.

He bandied back and forth from there between Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis and made four starts this spring with the Pirates, with more strikeouts than innings pitched.

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“I thought I threw pretty well,” he said. “Way better than last year. I felt way more comfortable. All of my pitches were pretty good, working on some things, throwing more up in the zone and throwing more offspeed, which was an adjustment. But I felt really good with it. Trying to keep working with that, so when we come back, I’m ready to go.”

Puk, 24, was a first-round pick of the A’s in 2016, the sixth-overall selection out of the University of Florida. He was on the fast track to the bigs but injured his left, throwing elbow in 2018 spring training, had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season.

He rehabbed, returned to the mound in 2019 and made his major league debut in mid-August against the New York Yankees as a reliever. He was being eased back into a starting role this spring but shoulder inflammation set him back, and he was limited to two appearances of an inning each.

“Since I got my shoulder thing, had the season started on time, maybe I would have started things coming out of the bullpen, so I could be with them from the start of the season,” Puk said. “Just some early fatigue stuff. Coming off Tommy John, you don’t really want to make it a point to rush things in spring training. So it was just a smart thing to kind of shut it down for a week and then start throwing. Just a little inflammation in there. Nothing crazy.”

Both guys described the events during spring training as surreal. One minute they were playing games, the next minute the season was being postponed, and they were making plans to head back to Iowa.

“It kind of just came out of nowhere,” Puk said. “You kind of heard about it, then the NBA postponed their season. Then it was like ‘Dang, if the NBA did that, then MLB might.’ It just kind of happened within a week, and I made the decision to come back home here.”

“We were down in spring training, and the news broke that the NBA was suspending its season,” Keller said. “At that point, all of us in the clubhouse were just thinking that was their regular season, and we’re in spring training. Why are we playing a game right now? The next day we were playing again, and everyone was like ‘What are we doing?’ Then the first inning of that game, MLB announced that after that day, everything was going to be suspended. Just like that.”

Keller said the Pirates had a conference call with their pitchers last week, telling them to stay in shape and throw, but only if they had the ability to do so. Keller and Puk are determined to be ready, when and if there is a baseball season.

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“The big thing is to keep people in shape and healthy. That’s the main concern,” Keller said. “When and if we do come back, we are going to have ramp up pretty fast. They’re trying to limit the injuries that could come with it.”

“You definitely don’t think of a virus canceling the season or delaying it. No one could have imagined that,” Puk said. “But it kind of is what it is, you know? I had a little shoulder issue this spring training that shut me down for a little bit. Nothing major. But I’m feeling good. There are always positives and negatives. This has given me an opportunity to get my shoulder feeling good. I’m good now and will be ready to go whenever we get the season back going.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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