MILWAUKEE — When Opening Day lineups are announced Monday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field, White Sox fans are not going to notice many differences from 2012.
Alejandro De Aza is still batting in the leadoff spot, Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko are back in the heart of the order — albeit in different spots — and Dayan Viciedo, Alexei Ramirez and Gordon Beckham follow after that.
Tyler Flowers moves from the bench to full-time catcher in place of the departed A.J. Pierzynski, and he’ll hit No. 8 between Ramirez and Beckham.
There’s only one brand-new face, and on the surface, Jeff Keppinger is easy to overlook.
In eight major-league seasons with the Mets, Royals, Reds, Astros, Giants and Rays, Keppinger has only had 500 or more at-bats one year. That came in 2010, when he hit .288 with 6 home runs, 59 RBI and a .351 on-base percentage with Houston.
Call him a late bloomer.
As he approaches his 33rd birthday on April 21, Keppinger opened a lot of eyes with Tampa Bay last season, batting .325 in 115 games while replacing injured all-star Evan Longoria.
Keppinger parlayed that performance into a three-year, $12 million free-agent contract with the Sox, who are expecting him to keep getting better with age while solidifying the troublesome No. 2 spot in the batting order.
“He’s a different guy than we’ve had,” manager Robin Ventura said Saturday before the White Sox closed out exhibition play with a 5-4 loss to the Brewers at Miller Park. “He doesn’t strike out a lot, he moves it around and he’s a situational type hitter.
“I think last year, in certain stretches, we didn’t have that, an inning that was extended or just starting an inning. Putting him in the middle of it, it changes the dynamic of it.”
While bouncing around between six teams, Keppinger has hit from just about every spot in the order. Though challenging, batting second is his ideal location.
“I guess you can say teams want the guy who can handle the bat the best hitting in the 2-hole,” Keppinger said. “You have to be able to move the ball around and do stuff like that. I practiced that a lot in the minor leagues; that’s where I hit throughout the minor leagues.
“It was something I took really seriously and I tried to perfect my game to be a 2-hole hitter, so it’s something I’m comfortable with. The 2-hole is a good spot for me.”
Keppinger had a very productive spring hitting second for the White Sox. It didn’t end well — the 6-foot, 185-pounder batted twice against Milwaukee on Saturday and grounded into 2 double plays, but he was batting .429 heading into the preseason finale.
Good or bad, Keppinger has been around long enough to know spring stats are not overly important.
“For me, it’s more of the contact,” said Keppinger, who was the American League’s toughest player to strike out last season. “I just try to do what I set out to do in that at-bat. It’s not so much getting hits or the numbers. Obviously (on Monday), those numbers change and all those numbers go back to zero. They don’t really matter.
“It’s about feeling comfortable, getting my timing down and for me, it’s getting my hands down and getting to what it is I want to do with the baseball when I’m up there in the batter’s box. Being able to slow it down enough so when the season does start, everything is slowed down and I can accomplish what I want to accomplish.”
As the White Sox’ new No. 2 hitter, Keppinger already knows what he wants to accomplish this season.
“I’m not the guy that’s going to go up there and swing for the fence all the time.” Keppinger said. “Early in the count, I’m willing to take the ball and move it to the right side of the field if it means moving the runner over. I’m also confident hitting with two strikes, so it’s not a big deal if I have to take some pitches for somebody in front of me to run or try to steal a bag.
“Ideally, that’s what teams want in a 2-hitter. You have the 3-hole hitter, the best hitter on the team, coming up behind you and then you have the boppers after him. Basically, you need a guy who can try to set the table for those guys and let them do what they’re paid to do.”
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