The plan was to have freshman Keaton Jones redshirt when he arrived as a walk-on in 2011.
Jones was a skinny, 160-pound pitcher and infielder discovered by former TCU assistant Randy Mazey at Laguna Beach (Calif.) High School.
“You’re always looking for guys that can throw strikes, especially if they throw 80 mph or more just to give you intrasquad innings,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle recalls. “And we knew he played shortstop.”
But he struggled at the plate, Schlossnagle said, and TCU already had incoming players recruited specifically to replace shortstop Taylor Featherston for the 2012 season, including Derek Odell, who ended up playing second base before moving to third in 2014.
Schlossnagle fully expected to redshirt Jones in 2012, so he didn’t play him in five exhibition games in the fall of 2011 that would have kept him from redshirting.
“Just to equal out some intrasquad games we put Keaton at short and every time a ground ball got hit to him, it was like, ‘Man, as long as he gets his hands on it, it’s an out,” Schlossnagle said. “And he actually looks pretty good doing it.”
But Schlossnagle admits that he and his coaches didn’t really think much of the situation until the 2012 season drew closer. They realized Jones was their best option.
“Let’s see what Keaton can do,” Schlossnagle said at the time.
Jones proved their instincts right — at first defensively — and now he’s also helping to win games with his bat. He leads the team with 16 postseason hits and trails only Kyle Bacak with a .348 batting average in the last 11 games, including four games at the Big 12 tournament.
Jones and Bacak (.355 average) have batted in the Nos. 8 and 9 holes all season. The bottom third of the Frogs’ lineup, which includes No. 7 hitter Dylan Fitzgerald, have combined for 12 RBIs and 12 runs in the postseason. Jones had two of the Frogs’ six hits in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Texas Tech in the College World Series opener and scored the tying run in the bottom of the eighth.
TCU (48-16) plays Virginia (50-14) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at TD Ameritrade Park. They are the only national seeds remaining, with TCU at No. 7 and Virginia No. 3. The game will be televised on ESPN.
“Those guys do such a great job of getting on base,” Schlossnagle said Monday morning before the team worked out at Creighton University in downtown Omaha. “I think Coach Mo [Bill Mosiello] has done a phenomenal job of getting them to have an identity, all three of those hitters, whether it be getting on base or executing an offense or knowing what kind of pitch they can handle.”
Jones started 61 of 62 games at shortstop as a freshman in 2012, made just 12 errors and helped lead the Frogs to the Los Angeles Super Regional against UCLA. He had 12 errors as a sophomore and has 13 this season.
By comparison, Featherston made 27 errors in 2011. Jones has vastly improved at the plate over the last three seasons, working with strength and conditioning coach Zach Dechant to bulk up a once rail-thin frame.
“When he came in he was one of the weakest kids I’ve ever seen at the college level — football, baseball, it doesn’t matter what sport,” said Dechant, who worked with Jones over the summer of 2012 to help him get stronger and heavier. “He’s not playing any baseball. So all he has to do is lift and eat. That really got him jump-started.”
That summer in 2012 Jones grew from 160 pounds to 181.
“It’s made all the difference in the world,” Dechant said. “He’s on a level with everybody else now. He turned himself into a man from a little boy.”
Jones is hitting .275 with 20 RBIs and 28 runs scored this season, quite an increase from his .231 a year ago and his .168 average as a freshman.
“A lot of it has to do with me feeling stronger and I can handle the bat a little more and I’m more confident with my experience,” he said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be if we’re going to win a championship. The whole lineup needs to produce. When the top of the lineup doesn’t, we have to produce and support those guys, too, if we’re going to win. It’s exciting. We all have confidence. We know we can do it. We expect it to happen.”
For Schlossnagle, Jones is a great example for other incoming recruits who may not be happy with their role.
“Either you can pout, or you can do what Keaton Jones did and just keep working and look what happened to him in the spring,” Schlossnagle said. “Honestly, every year we try to sign a shortstop to come in and compete with Keaton and every year he wins the job. He makes plays in games that his physical tools shouldn’t allow him to make.”
College World Series
(at TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.)
Texas 4, Louisville 1
Vanderbilt vs. UC Irvine, 7 p.m.
Texas Tech vs. Ole Miss, 2 p.m., ESPN2
TCU vs. Virginia, 7 p.m., ESPN
TCU 3, Texas Tech 2
Virginia 2, Ole Miss 1