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HAMMOCK: Keppinger still solidly displays MLB talent

Jeff Keppinger shares the same first name as the guy who followed him in baseball stardom at Parkview, two-sport high school legend Jeff Francoeur, but he was never as heralded.

A mythical figure in high school, Francoeur only garnered more fans by being drafted and rising to sudden fame with the hometown Atlanta Braves. Locally, even Francoeur has been surpassed in popularity by his good friend Brian McCann, a Duluth grad and already a four-time all-star.

Other Gwinnett baseball products also have ridden mini-waves of fame. Duluth's Nick Green and Clint Sammons have had their moments with the Braves, while Sammons and fellow Parkview grad Tim Gustafson play nearby with the Class AAA Gwinnett Braves. Brookwood grad Jason Bulger, now pitching with the Angels, got the notoriety that comes with being the county's first-ever, first-round pick.

But what about Keppinger?

He's been Gwinnett's overlooked major-leaguer for some time, staying under the radar while building a solid career that tops most of the aforementioned players, save McCann.

Though he's bounced between a handful of organizations, he's proven to be a handy utility player wherever he's gone. He can play any infield position and he can hit, so he's found his way onto the field with Kansas City (2006), Cincinnati (2007-08) and Houston (2009-10) as a regular major-leaguer over the past five seasons.

The 30-year-old's bat has never been questioned, whether it was hitting over .550 his final two seasons at Parkview, .380 in three college seasons at Georgia or .283 in his major league career. He's already played 53 games this season for the Astros, sporting a .308 batting average with 17 doubles and 20 RBIs.

His most recent work has been some of his best -- over the past 10 games he's 15-for-39 (.385) -- and has emerged as a bat the Astros need in the lineup.

Despite his steady play, Keppinger doesn't get much love in Atlanta. Large packs of fans don't don his jersey when the Astros come to town. The local baseball community has turned over so much since his last high school baseball season, 1998, his name isn't one that's talked about frequently anymore. Those coaches who are still around remember Keppinger not showing up to receive his county player of the year award as a senior, leaving his embarrassed coach to accept the honor for him.

But that's ancient history now, more than 12 years ago. He's grown up and married (to former Parkview softball standout Morgan Jaillett) with children. He's changed personally, though his baseball skills haven't, and Keppinger should be commended for both.

Maybe he'll even start to get some of the attention he deserves from locals fans, who often have reserved that for another Jeff from Parkview.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.