Southridge graduate was a pitcher for Rangers

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When Joe Keusch coached at Southridge, he saw it as his responsibility to help players get an opportunity to play at the next level. Joe wanted any player who desired to play college baseball get to that point, and he was willing to find them a place to play.

BY COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com

Joe Keusch can remember back to his childhood, how badly he wanted to play basketball when he was growing up. He loved the stories he heard about his uncles, Mike and Dennis “Red” Keusch, as he idolized them and wanted to be just like them.

There was one problem, and it proved to be an obstacle for Joe as he was growing up. He was a late bloomer, and it took awhile for him to physically mature. So, naturally, he was rather devastated when he didn’t make the team in junior high, but looking back on it, it sure didn’t hurt him.

“Quite frankly, I deserved to get cut,” Joe said.

He’d soon learn that his calling wasn’t on the court, but on the diamond. Joe began playing baseball around the time he was 7 or 8 years old.

“I didn’t play any other sports [in high school],” he said. “Although I love sports, I wasn’t good enough to play anything else. My dad (Maurice) was very clear with me at a young age that he realized that my capabilities in other sports were pretty limited, and I took that as a motivator.”

He didn’t really make an impact at Southridge in 1987, but he was a regular on the pitching staff in 1988, when he worked 38.2 regular-season innings with 24 strikeouts and 17 walks. He posted a 4.71 ERA.

The ace of that staff was Andy Stout, who logged 91 innings that year, recording 135 strikeouts against 28 walks and a 1.15 ERA with 10 complete games. Other pitchers who went through Southridge turned pro, but Joe held Stout in high regard in terms of a prep career at Southridge. He added Stout was really a big influence on him at that time.

“He led by example,” he said of Stout. “He didn’t lead by running his mouth or telling people they need to carry their equipment or anything. He just went out there and competed. He was a devastating pitcher — I mean, he was lights out, and so I kind of modeled myself, even though I was right-handed, I wanted to be as good as Andy Stout. That was my focus.”

Stout held Pike Central down for most of the 1988 sectional semifinal, and the Raiders looked to be going to the sectional championship after taking a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh. But Pike Central tied it, and the Raiders and Chargers were deadlocked until Joe took the hill in the bottom of the 11th. He came close to getting out of it, until Jarrod Shoultz drove in Jeff Taylor for the 2-1 walk off.

Joe laughed loud and hard when he was told about this, doubting that other people would remember it. He even went as far as to say he didn’t remember Shoultz’s name.

“It was probably just a good piece of hitting,” Joe said. “We had our chances in that ballgame all the way through and we didn’t capitalize on a few opportunities that we had. Andy pitched a fantastic game, and he didn’t get rewarded for it like he should’ve.”

He knew he needed to commit to being a better player, as he would have to step up as an upperclassman. Joe took it upon himself to play American Legion ball in Tell City, and hailed the type of competition he saw there.

Joe improved his statistics as a junior, but things escaped the Raiders on June 3, 1989, in the sectional semifinal against Jasper. The Raiders held a 4-2 lead entering the bottom of the fifth at Recreation Field when errors did them in. They committed eight of them, and Joe was part of that when he committed a throwing error in the bottom of the fifth. Southridge went from leading 4-2 to losing 11-4 and ending the season with a 4-21 record and 13-game skid.

He couldn’t really recall that game, but that physical maturity that held him back earlier in life started to come to fruition after his junior year. Joe enjoyed his finest campaign of his high school career as a senior in 1990. His regular season consisted of going 7-1 and four complete games in 60.1 innings of work, ringing up 69 batters against 25 walks with an ERA of 0.46.

It’s that physical maturity that he credited for his big breakout senior campaign, thanking football coaches Steve Winkler and Ron LaGrange for helping him, even though he didn’t play the sport.

“They spent a lot of time with me up in the weight room, and were always there when I wanted to be there,” he said. “It’s an old cliché you spend the time in the weight room and it pays you back, but for somebody like me that was really undersized at that point physically, the weight room truly did change the complexion of me as a baseball player.”

There was a problem, though. The Raiders would be without Joe in the sectional against Northeast Dubois. He had received disciplinary action and was suspended for the sectional that day. Southridge didn’t need him that first day, though, as it advanced to the championship without him, but got him back for the championship game against Jasper after the title game was postponed due to weather.

“That was a lesson learned to be sure there about the disciplinary front,” Joe said. “I probably learned a lot more from that lesson than any other lesson in terms of discipline, because I realized how close it was for me to get my stuff taken away from me, my opportunities taken away from me.”

A shutout was pitched in that championship game, but it wasn’t courtesy of Joe and the Raiders. The Wildcats relied on the sophomore duo of Jason Wibbels and Andy Noblitt to turn Southridge away, 3-0, for the sectional championship. The Raiders hadn’t won a baseball sectional since 1982, and wouldn’t win one until 2014.

Joe thought it simply was a matter of not being able to score against Jasper, but that was a common theme for the Raiders, though he thought they had really good pitching in Cory Dearing, Brett Begle and himself.

His only collegiate offer at that time was from Olney Central College (Ill.), but he never played there despite receiving a tuition waiver from longtime coach Dennis Conley. Joe played American Legion ball at Rockport, and the assistant was Bob Snyder, the head coach at Wabash Valley College (Ill.) at that time. He requested and received his release from Conley to play for Snyder.

Joe shined at Wabash Valley, and had a desire to pitch at the NCAA Division I level, especially after his first year, but stuck around for another year.

“For me, the only option was Division I,” he said. “I had it in my mind at that point that I wanted to face the best competition in the country, and that had to be at the Division I level. It became an obsession for me, really, after my first year at Wabash Valley.”

The offers poured in after his sophomore year. Western Kentucky University, the University of South Florida and the University of New Orleans all reached out. Joe wanted to go to the University of Evansville, but the Aces didn’t have a lot of interest in him, wanting him as a walk-on.

“It goes into the summer of my sophomore year,” Joe said. “I think it’s about middle or late June, I’m pitching for the Jasper Reds, I don’t have a place to play yet. I’m still holding out hope somebody’s going to call.”

An assistant coach for Wabash Valley ran into then-Eastern Illinois University coach Dan Callahan, who was looking for a right-handed pitcher. He then learned about somebody who was still unsigned: Joe Keusch.

Callahan saw him pitch for the Reds, invited him to campus, showed him that season’s schedule and Joe salivated at the prospect of the competition he’d be seeing. Wake Forest University, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University were all on the docket, and he was sold.

He thrived with the Panthers. Joe went 1-3 in relief, but notched six saves with a 1.67 ERA in 1993. He prided himself on throwing strikes and had to work on painting the corners, but that was a game changer for him.

Joe attended numerous tryout camps, but was passed up in the 1993 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. He threw 90 mph on campus in fall 1993, and then scouts began taking an interest in him.

The-then Florida Marlins took interest, as did the New York Mets, but a scout for the Texas Rangers, Mike Daughtry, was there for an Eastern Illinois doubleheader against Notre Dame.

“He talked to me between games and said, ‘We’re going to try to get you tomorrow if you’re still there,’” he said. “They thought it would be the early 20s that I would be around. It ended up being the 33rd round. So, they had a pick there and they took me. Basically, at that point, when you’re that late in the draft, you’re considered what’s called a senior sign. You’re basically a fill-in type of a player to fill a roster.”

Texas sent him to Low-A ball for the Hudson Valley Renegades instead of rookie ball. He joined a team of five players that made it to the big leagues, including Kevin Brown, a Pike Central graduate. One of his teammates was Stephen Larkin, the brother of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, and another, fellow pitcher Reid Ryan, the son of Hall of Fame flamethrower Nolan Ryan.

“We had a lot of publicity, I mean a lot,” Joe said.

Joe had his own baseball card made by Fleer as part of the Renegades. He received a fan mail letter just last week from somebody in New York asking him to sign his card, as an idea of just how huge that team still is a quarter of a century later.

It was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. Joe called it the toughest ticket in town. He had a high strikeout-to-walk ratio, but went 0-1 with a 6.75 ERA in 14 games. Joe called it an enjoyable experience, nevertheless, and his breakout year was to come in 1995.

He got the call to High-A Ball that year for the Port Charlotte Rangers in the Florida State League, and Joe credits the personnel that season who helped him succeed. Butch Wynegar, a former all-star catcher, was his manager, and John Tudor, a former Cy Young runner-up, was his pitching coach.

Joe believed he had to prove himself right away, or he’d be gone.

“John Tudor sends me out that first night against Fort Myers, I get beat up,” he said. “I give up a three-run homer. I’m rattled. I’m in all kinds of trouble.”

He remembers going home that night and asking himself a question, “Do I belong here?”

Tudor, a former star lefty for the St. Louis Cardinals, affirmed to him the next day that, yes, he did belong there. If the Rangers had a chance to win the game, then he was going out there that night.

The Rangers went 65-67 that season, but Joe posted a 9-4 record and 1.82 ERA in 64.1 innings with eight saves, 36 strikeouts and 14 walks, and he attributed it to the 1988 World Series champion.

“His confidence in me put me back out there,” Joe said. “That really saved my career at that point, I felt like.”

Joe’s performance earned him a promotion to the Double A Tulsa Drillers, where he pitched 2.2 innings of scoreless relief that season, and his career was seemingly taking off. The Rangers saw big things in his future, that this 33rd round pick was now a legitimate prospect and the potential was there for a possible stint in the majors.

Only nine Eastern Illinois baseball players have ever played in the majors. Joe was not one of those nine, however.

He thought he had the opportunity to at least appear in the big leagues, but one thing that can derail a lot of prospects is injuries. It happened to him in 1996 when he felt pain in the front side of his shoulder.

“I knew I’d never been hurt in my career with any type of injury, so I knew I was really hurt,” he said.

The Rangers tried to rehab him. He had an MRI that revealed a torn bicep tendon. Joe also learned of a torn labrum. His velocity dramatically fell and his ERA ballooned in the limited time he saw. Suddenly, his star burned out just as greatly as it shined the year before.

He had surgery and missed all of 1997. If the idea of being a professional player was the greatest thing to him, being a hurt professional player was one of the worst things.  Joe never reclaimed what he once had, and wasn’t the type of an athlete to come back from that injury. He knew how hard it’d be to pitch again at the professional level, much less in the majors.

Joe never appeared in the minors again. He pitched 19 innings in 1998 for the St. Paul Saints in independent baseball. Joe went 1-1 with a 6.63 ERA and one save. He came back to Indiana and spent time with the Evansville Outlaws and became Southridge’s head coach in 2002, a position he held through 2009.

He wanted to win, but he also saw it as his responsibility to help players get that opportunity to play at the next level. Joe wanted any player who desired to play college baseball get to that point, and he was willing to find them a place to play.

The Raiders never won a sectional with him as head coach, but they still won games, some against good teams, and he was able to get players to play in college. He thought some years may have escaped them when trying to win a sectional championship, but his coaching style never wavered.

“I’m not for everybody, that’s for sure,” Joe said. “Some people can’t digest my methods and the way I go about things, and I never altered the way I’m going about things. I tried to pick up things along the way whether it’s from Butch Wynegar or John Tudor or Bobby Snyder or Dan Callahan or Bob Alles or whoever, whoever I played for or played with. But I always had my own style, and I always felt like there were things you needed to do as a player, and if you chose not to do those things, then we weren’t going to get along.”

He thought Southridge got better as a program, and reflected on the things the coaches put in place through the years to go from dry spell to two-time state runner-up. Joe went through the names of Gary Meyer, Dave Schank, himself, Brad Wibbeler and current coach Gene Mattingly all refining things to try to make the program better.

Joe most recently served as pitching coach for the Raiders when they finished as the Class 2A runner-up for the second year in a row. He put pressure on himself to prepare his hurlers, but being an assistant coach and pitching coach doesn’t carry the same kind of pressure being a head coach does.

He remains hung up on that walk-off loss to Alexandria in the 2019 state championship game, to go from a dropped third strike to another second-place finish. Joe felt a lot of things had to happen for Southridge to lose that game, and, sure enough, it did.

“I kind of take it to extremes in most things I do,” he said. “I think about games that had gotten away from me as a player and as a coach 25 to 30 years ago. So this one here is still fresh as far as I’m concerned, and that’s not always healthy. I’m not saying it is, but it will stick with me for a long, long time because our kids really did everything right until the very end.

“Sometimes things like that happen in baseball,” Joe continued. “Sports are cruel, but then you got to sit back and look at the things that you are able to do that there’s a lot of other people in this world that aren’t even physically capable, let alone getting an opportunity to be put in those circumstances.”




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