Instead of summer workout goals, Utes junior outfielder DaShawn Keirsey Jr.’s offseason milestones consisted of being able to walk again, swing a bat without pain and being able to run on flat land.
After all, his last regular-season appearance at Smith’s Ballpark ended with him writhing on the warning track in pain until being loaded into an ambulance.
Keirsey and the Utes begin their first home series of the year against Sacramento State at 6 p.m. Friday in Smith’s Ballpark. Keirsey will likely slot into the lineup as the designated hitter. Being able to swing pain-free was the first sign in his mind that he would come back from a potentially-catastrophic collision with the outfield wall.
“At Smith’s Ballpark, center field is 420 [feet],” Keirsey said. “You don’t really, especially in games, see people hit the ball over the center field wall at this level. I just remember thinking, with the trajectory of the ball, I thought it was going to have a chance. In the back of my mind, I knew I was going to collide with the wall some way, but I thought it was going to be like a jump into the wall. I didn’t think it would be, obviously, the way it happened.”
A two-time Pac-12 All-Defensive Team selection at center field and two-time first-team all-conference honoree, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Keirsey went barreling after a home run by Arizona State’s Hunter Bishop and smashed into the wall. The game stopped for 30 minutes as Keirsey both dislocated and fractured his left hip.
Initially, all Keirsey could think about was the pain, holding his knee in order to put his hip in the least painful position. He’d been offered a chance to play in the Cape Code Baseball League in Massachusetts, a high-profile proving ground for the nation’s top amateur ballplayers, an opportunity that disappeared that day.
Hitting the wall didn’t only drastically change Keirsey’s summer. His ability to make an impact on a game had been predicated on speed.
“Once I was into my recovery, I just thought about if I would ever come back the same,” Keirsey said.
Two weeks before that game, Keirsey had run into the wall in a game and sustained a bone bruise, and Utes baseball coach Bill Kinneberg’s first thought was he’d re-aggravated the injury. The magnitude of the injury didn’t hit Kinneberg until he walked out to the field and got close enough to see that Keirsey‘s hip was out of place.
“First thing was getting him well or getting him to be OK,” Kinneberg said. “Then two, your second thought is when can he get back and start playing, and we never really knew that. Nobody could give us a timetable. That was a scary deal.”
A resident of San Diego, Keirsey said he did a lot of his physical therapy and rehab with the San Diego Padres training staff.
“I actually was able to start walking about two weeks to a month before they said I would start walking,” Keirsey said. “Two days after I started walking, I was in the batting cages hitting.”
Keirsey made a video of himself hitting days after ditching his crutches, and sent it to Kinneberg, who was simultaneously excited and worried Keirsey was doing too much too soon.
“I immediately called him and said ‘Stop,’” Kinneberg said. “But the greatest thing about that deal was his swing wasn’t any different. That shocked me. You couldn’t tell that he had been hurt two months prior to that.”
Keirsey wasn’t cleared to jog or run until nearly four months post-surgery. He worked out on underwater treadmills and an “AlterG” anti-gravity treadmill, which adjusts how much body weight is supported by the person’s legs.
His biggest mental hurdles came in the fall and winter. The first came in the form of a visit to Smith’s Ballpark.
“I’m not going to lie,” Keirsey said. “I had a lot of emotions, especially when I walked back out to that area. Everything hit me at once. But after that first day, I got back to it. Definitely, the first time I saw that place it was emotional — just since what happened the last time I was there.”
The next big one came before Christmas, when the staff was timing players in the 30-yard dash and Keirsey convinced Kinneberg to allow him to run on the condition he wouldn’t “go hard.”
“Naturally, that doesn’t happen where he doesn’t go hard,” Kinneberg said. “He ran the same time that he ran last year, and that was another milestone. Now that I look back, that was maybe the biggest confidence-booster for him that we could’ve ever done for him.”
This season, Keirsey has played in 14 games, hitting .354 with a .458 slugging percentage and a team-leading five doubles, plus three stolen bases. Because of a nagging hamstring issue, he’ll likely serve as DH this weekend with an eye toward returning to the field next weekend against top-ranked Oregon State.
Keirsey points to that 30-yard sprint as the moment he knew he’d return to being the player he was before hitting the wall.
“I remember after I ran that, everything kind of – all the weight kind of lifted off my shoulders realizing I’m just about back at full speed,” Keirsey said. “That was probably the point where I realized I was definitely back.”