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 CINCINNATI (AP) -After a successful season-opening series, the Cincinnati Reds' top hitter was someone unexpected.
Not Ken Griffey Jr. - he had only one hit. Not Adam Dunn - no homers by the slugger. Not Brandon Phillips or Edwin Encarnacion or any of the other obvious candidates to get on a tear.
Try Jeff Keppinger.
The 27-year-old shortstop has been the Reds' most impressive hitter while filling in for ailing Alex Gonzalez. Keppinger hit a solo homer in a 3-2 win over Arizona on Thursday, and opened a weekend series against Philadelphia batting .500.
``He's seizing the opportunity,'' manager Dusty Baker said Friday.
In one sense, it's not surprising. Keppinger has always been a good hitter. His range in the field has prevented him from getting more time in the majors. While Gonzalez recovers from a compression fracture in his left knee, Keppinger will get the chance to show the Reds - or some other team - what he can do in the majors.
``I'm trying not to be the weakness because we have our starting shortstop down,'' Keppinger said. ``I'm trying to do a good enough job that we're still as strong as if he were in there.''
So far, he's done even better.
Batting second behind Corey Patterson, Keppinger has gone 5-for-10 with a double and a solo homer. He also has impressed the Reds' new manager with his approach at the plate.
``He's probably the guy on the team that you see practicing his hitting during batting practice,'' Baker said. ``You see other guys hitting the ball in the air or seeing how far they can hit it and stuff. You can practice making outs like you can practice getting hits, and he's practicing getting hits. He's going to right field and back up the middle.''
Keppinger didn't start this way.
The Pirates drafted him in the fourth round in June 2001 and sent him to Class A Hickory, where they decided to totally change his approach at the plate. He was a power hitter at Georgia, but the Pirates wanted him to change his stance and work on putting the ball in play.
``They wanted me to spread out and use the whole field,'' Keppinger said. ``I never used right field at all. That was not my niche. So I did it. I think I started out 0-for-32.''
Keppinger honed his new approach in the offseason, came back and batted .325 the next season with only three homers. Just like that, he had transformed himself.
``That year, I hit for pretty good average,'' Keppinger said. ``So, it just kind of stuck.''
He went to the Mets as part of the Kris Benson trade in 2004 and played in 33 games, batting .284. The Royals got him in 2006, when he batted .267 in 22 games. Cincinnati traded for him before last season.
With Gonzalez taking time away to attend to an ailing son, Keppinger got to play in 67 games last season. He batted .332 with five homers and 32 RBIs, making three errors. He's likely to keep the job for a few more weeks while Gonzalez recovers from his knee injury.
Baker likes what he has seen from Keppinger all-around.
``Actually, he reminds me kind of Rich Aurilia at shortstop,'' Baker said. ``Everybody talked about Richie's range or whatever, but he was always there to make the play.''
Keppinger took that as a compliment. After all, Aurilia has played 13 years in the majors.
``I hope I can stick around that long,'' he said.
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