SIOUX CITY -- It hadn’t made much sense, really, the trajectory David Kerian’s baseball career had taken over the last three seasons.
Batting just .205 over two years with the Auburn (N.Y.) Doubledays, the Washington Nationals’ short-season Class A team, the 2015 Big Ten Player of the Year was released.
Then, after hooking on last year with the Windy City Thunder Bolts of the independent Frontier League, a league for players 27 and under, he lasted six weeks and was sent packing after batting only .151. And, this is a league where American Association clubs frequently ship players who aren’t ready for this level.
Kerian, the 2015 Big Ten batting and RBI king (.367 and 52), wasn’t ready to pack it in. And, neither was his father, Steve, a former Florida International baseball standout who became known around here as a valuable member of a world champion Penn Corp fast-pitch softball team.
“I felt like the numbers definitely don’t show how my swing was at that point,’’ said Kerian. “I was battling through injuries both seasons with the Nationals and they’d push me to get back in the game. Then, last year in the Frontier League, I just felt like I couldn’t catch a break. My numbers were down and I wasn’t helping the team.’’
Disappointed but not discouraged, he headed home to his wife, Liz, in suburban Indianapolis. Over the winter, he gave hitting lessons while his wife, the former Liz McNabb, worked at a local hospital as a nurse.
Kerian’s dad, who now builds houses, mostly at Dakota Dunes, made inquiries to Shane Tritz, general manager of the Sioux City Explorers. Then, after Manager Steve Montgomery invited 27 players to preseason camp, one shy of the league limit, Tritz convinced “Mongo” to give the former Bishop Heelan star a shot.
“I thought spring training went well,’’ said the first baseman who can also play third and the outfield. “I beat out a player (Dre Gleason) and did what I could to show that I deserved to be here and that it wasn’t a handout just because I’m from Sioux City.’’
That roster slot offered no guarantees of playing time. For much of what has been a highly successful season for the Explorers, Kerian either watched from the dugout or the bullpen, where he volunteered to warm up the X’s relief pitchers.
“He’s done what we’ve asked him to do and that’s very important in the grand scheme of things,’’ said Montgomery. “Whether it’s catching in the bullpen, being here for early work, doing a commercial, doing an interview, it doesn’t matter what we’ve asked this kid to do. He’s done it and he hasn’t complained one iota.’’
Kerian was in the lineup just once in a 15-game stretch when third baseman Jose Sermo suffered a muscle spasm that has kept him out of the last seven games, counting a suspended game July 15 that will be completed this Friday.
In the six completed contests since he was inserted as the designated hitter, batting ninth, he has gone 7 of 18, raising his batting average to .304. On Saturday, with the X’s deadlocked with the Lincoln Saltdogs at Haymarket Park, he walloped a tie-breaking home run that wound up giving his team a 6-5 victory.
The home run was actually his second for the Explorers and it was a no-doubter by a player who had 16 round-trippers as an Illinois senior.
“I’ve been doing a lot, I think, for the team and everybody’s been doing their part,’’ said Kerian. “And for me to step up in a moment like that and just be able to help the team out, it’s a pretty relieving feeling.’’
This hasn’t happened by accident. A switch hitter throughout his four seasons as a starter at Heelan and also his four years with the Illini, he had continued to bat both ways with the Nationals and also Windy City. However, after his release last June, he decided a wrist injury was hindering his swings from the left side of the plate, where switch hitters get the lion’s share of their at-bats. He started the year here batting only righthanded, regardless of who was pitching.
A little more than a week ago, Matt Passerelle, the Explorers’ hitting coach, asked Kerian to try swinging again lefthanded.
“He liked it well enough and said it might help me get in the lineup and help the team win,’’ said Kerian, whose wrist is now fully mended.
“When he’s gotten his opportunity to play, he has taken advantage of it,’’ said Montgomery. “He’s been a bright spot when we’ve had some injuries. He’s been able to come in and contribute. You never hear a peep out of him. You wouldn’t know if Dave had played for 30 games in a row or if he didn’t play for 30 games in a row. He’s the same kid no matter what. It’s a credit to him for buying in.’’
“I never tried to show my emotions,’’ said Kerian. “I control what I can control. Mongo’s a great manager. It’s just my job to put my head down and help the team and do what I can.’’
Kerian’s older brother, Jeff, and his younger brother, Matthew, both made it to state baseball tournaments at Heelan. David didn’t have that experience, but he was able to lead Illinois to a No. 6 national ranking in 2015, when his 50-10-1 team lost a super regional to defending national champion Vanderbilt.
Vandy went on to lose in the College World Series championship series in a rematch from the previous year’s final with Virginia.
Just like Miles Wolff imagined it, the Explorers and the rest of their league are a second or third chance for talented players to get back into affiliated baseball.
David Kerian didn’t quite appreciate any of this as he was growing up in Dakota Dunes.
“Since our high school season was in the summer, we weren’t able to see the Explorers play much, but we got to as many games as we could,’’ he said. “But looking back on it, we didn’t really know how good the talent was. It’s pretty incredible, the talent level here in Sioux City, but I didn’t really know about it.
“I think everybody on this team has the capability to get picked up (by affiliated teams). Everybody’s been doing very well. I was just doing what I could to prepare myself in batting practice and take advantage of the opportunities when they came.’’
If he keeps it up, the hometown “boy” could be helping the Explorers bring home their very first championship.
And, in the process, he just might open some baseball doors that appeared to have closed.