Two years ago, Keaton Jones was a skinny 5’11” middle infielder searching for his potential on a Breakers team that was just beginning to do the same. Two weeks ago, and 30 pounds heavier, the 6’2” senior gave everyone a glimpse of that potential when he pitched Laguna to its first out-right league championship in 48 years.
Jones scattered five hits over seven innings, striking out a career high 12 Costa Mesa batters in a nail-biter that saw Laguna overcome a one run deficit over the final two innings for a 3-2 victory. “I like pitching those tough games,” said Jones. “Pressure doesn’t bother me. I thrive in that position.”
After the winning run crossed the plate on catcher Eric Peruzzi’s infield single, Jones and his teammates came together along the first baseline in a mass of pure joy, expelling nearly five decades of pent up frustration. “It was awesome to dog pile and celebrate because it was such a close win,” said the hard throwing right-hander.
“That arm is an amazing arm,” said Coach Jeff Sears. “We always knew he would do big things for us.”
Jones’ love for the game began when, as a 4-year-old, he took his first swing at a teed-up ball. But he didn’t try his arm at pitching until he was 11. He gave up the position a year later. “I got sore arms all the time,” Jones said of the physical struggles that drove him off the hill.
When Jones made varsity as a sophomore, Sears knew he had a pitcher in the making, but the patient coach didn’t want to rush his young arm and played Jones at second base and shortstop. “My big thing was he had to get stronger and had to develop,” Sears said.
Through hard work and weight training, Jones made his way back to the mound last season as a middle reliever. He garnered a 3.42 ERA over 14.1 innings, notching two wins and a save against two losses, striking out 11 while walking seven. “They just needed me on the mound, so I filled in,” said Jones, seemingly unimpressed with his efforts.
Then, during the summer season and into last fall, Jones went through a “dead arm” period, said Sears, when he couldn’t throw more than four innings. It turned out to be tendonitis in his throwing shoulder, so Sears and his new pitching coach Ben Julianel decided to put Jones in the bullpen until he regained his arm strength.
As his pitching arm continued to develop so did his stroke at the plate. He followed up solid sophomore and junior campaigns by hitting .489 in the lead off position through last Tuesday. He’s hasn’t missed a game this year, finishing among the top three on the team in 12 offensive categories and leading in runs (41), doubles (14), OBP (.562), BB (22) and stolen bases (10).
Jones the pitcher and Jones the hitter seemed to feed off each other’s success. He started this season with four saves in four opportunities, striking out half of the 10 batters he faced without allowing a run. By then, it was clear that Jones’ days in the bullpen were numbered. “[Relieving] wasn’t enough because he was so dominant,” said Sears.
He finally got his first starting nod on April 2 against Palos Verdes Peninsula in the second round of the Anaheim Lions Tournament. And until the league-clinching win over Costa Mesa, it was Jones’ finest hour on mound.
He pitched a complete game shutout, allowing only three hits while striking out eight division II Panthers, who were 9-1 at the time and perhaps the best team the Breakers had faced all season. That is until four days later in the final round of the same tournament, when Jones picked up the win over Division I Villa Park.
That game proved to be the only dent in Jones’ pitching armor this season. He entered the game in relief of sophomore starter Larry Stewart, who left with a two-run lead. Jones proceeded to let Villa Park back in the game, surrendering the tying runs in the seventh, but he never lost his confidence.
He shut down the Spartans hitters in the top of the eighth, striking out two. Laguna went on to win the game 6-5 on a bases-loaded walk by sophomore Robbie McInerny. “I’m always confident pitching with those guys, because I know they’ll put runs on the board,” said Jones.
He finished the regular season with a spotless record, going 6-0 with five saves in 11 appearances. That means, whenever Jones is on the mound, whether as a starter or in relief, the Breakers win. He and fellow senior Chris Paul (9-1 in 10 appearance) give Laguna a formidable one-two punch that could take the team deep into the post-season.
Jones knows that if the fourth ranked Division IV Breakers are to put a happily-ever-after ending on their storybook season, they will have to beat better teams than they have seen so far. “I think we can beat anybody that we face,” Jones boasted. Coming from Jones, the claim sounds believable.