ORONO, Maine — Barry Keiffer walked away from baseball in 2007. He was enrolled at NAIA Lubbock Christian University in Texas, but had lost his passion for the game.
“I talked to the head coach at the end of the fall and told him I was done, baseball didn’t feel like a game any more,” Keiffer recalled. “It felt like I had to go to a job and work, more than have fun with the game.”
Keiffer returned home to Midland, Texas, to work in the family locksmith business.
LCU was Keiffer’s second collegiate stop, after two years at Midland College. It proved not to be his last.
The 22-year-old pitcher has developed a renewed enthusiasm for the game at the University of Maine. The lanky lefthander is a key member of the Black Bears’ bullpen during their hunt for the America East title.
That quest continues Friday and Saturday as coach Steve Trimper’s team closes out the regular season with a four-game series at Maryland Baltimore County.
The UMaine experience has been a positive one for Keiffer, a 6-foot-3, 175-pounder.
“It was a great decision,” he said.
He has taken advantage of his last go-round. He sports a 3-1 record with a 4.43 earned run average and his 19 appearances rank second on the ballclub.
Keiffer has pitched 40+ innings, all in relief. He leads UMaine with a 2.2-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio (22 strikeouts, 10 walks).
“Having a lefthander out of the bullpen to get a double play or a strikeout, he’s done a very good job in that role,” Trimper said.
“It’s a pleasure as a coach to have somebody out there who’s so cool under pressure,” he added.
Keiffer has been comfortable in his role as a setup man.
“I can throw back-to-back days and I’m ready to go in, in any game,” he said. “It keeps you more into the game [mentally], because your name’s on the list, in case they need you.”
Keiffer is a soft-spoken, slow-talking Texan. His calm personality lends itself to meeting the challenges faced by a reliever.
“He’s as even-keeled as any kid I’ve ever coached,” Trimper said. “I think with the demeanor he has, he can get into pressure situations and he deals with them in a great way.”
The door to UMaine was opened by Bears pitcher Justin Latta, one of Keiffer’s teammates at Midland and Glens Falls of the New York Collegiate Baseball League. When the two got together during semester break in January 2009, Latta suggested Keiffer think about pitching again.
Latta mentioned it to Trimper, who contacted Keiffer on a Friday and suggested he make a visit to talk about transferring. Keiffer didn’t wait around.
“On Sunday I got a call from him saying, I’m in my truck, I’m driving to Maine,” Trimper said. “He showed up on our doorstep on Monday morning.
“It’s a success story for a kid who really wanted to play.”
Keiffer’s motivation wasn’t only to play baseball. Although he earned an associate’s degree in applied science from Midland, he had higher aspirations.
“That’s one thing my mom wanted me to get is an actual degree at a [four-year] college,” Keiffer said. “I thought it would be fun to go out on the field again, especially at D-I (Division I).”
There was no instant gratification when he enrolled at UMaine in January 2009. He was required by NCAA transfer rules to sit out a calendar year.
“I was probably better off so I could get back in the groove playing baseball again, meeting the team and practicing with them,” Keiffer said, “getting in the routine of how they played baseball up here and how the coaches run things.”
He returned to game action last summer with the Amsterdam of the NYCBL. He compiled a 5-0 record with a 3.63 ERA to help the Monarchs win the championship.
That helped set the tone for his performance this spring at UMaine. He has been steady in America East games (0-0, 2.45 ERA), allowing 11 hits and three earned runs in 11 innings over seven appearances.
Keiffer throws a fastball, a slider and a changeup. He’s not overpowering, but minimizes walks and made a midseason adjustment that has improved his effectiveness, according to UMaine pitching coach Aaron Izaryk.
“He was messing around one day and he said, ‘coach, I’m going to drop my arm angle for this game,’” Izaryk said.
Changing his release point, although not to the extreme of submariner and fellow “Texas Slinger” Latta, has paid dividends for Keiffer.
“He added some movement and a little bit of sink on his ball, which is what he was missing [throwing] over the top,” Izaryk said.
Keiffer also has been a calming influence in the UMaine clubhouse.
“Barry’s been a quiet leader on our team,” Izaryk said.
Keiffer is quick to diffuse any potential tense moments.
“When people are chirping at each other, I throw jokes out there toward the guys,” he said. “I try to keep it calm and easy.”
Keiffer is confident the Bears can make a successful postseason run.
“I think if everybody plays the way they’re capable of playing, there’ll be very little problems getting through this first [America East] tournament and even [NCAA] regionals,” he said.