Whitman plays through pain
Breaks nose and then home run record in same game
Forget about the pain rushing through his body. UNC-Pembroke senior star Keith Whitman wasn’t going to let a broken nose derail his chances of breaking a school record in a game against St. Andrews last month.
So one inning after taking a direct hit to the face with a pitch, Whitman brushed off the injury as if it was a scraped knee, stepped up to the plate and crushed a record-breaking home run over the wall in centerfield in the fourth inning of a 20-5 victory against the Knights.
The homer was the 41st of his career, the latest highlight for a player who put his foot on the gas pedal the moment he stepped on campus four years ago and has never let up.
The Braves are headed to the NCAA Division II tournament next week, riding the high of their first Peach Belt Conference championship. And while Whitman is focused on the postseason journey ahead, he took time to reflect on his remarkable accomplishment.
“It was huge, and breaking it with a broken nose just made it that much better,” Whitman said. “Playing through the pain really wasn’t that bad. I was running on adrenaline. It wasn’t until the next day that it actually started hurting.”
Typically, a record broken at the DII level doesn’t generate a ton of attention. Enter the power of the internet. ESPN even featured it on its Going Viral segment.
“It’s awesome that everything happened the way it did, and I didn’t seriously get hurt,” Whitman said. “It was our sports information department [assistant director Collin Bonnicksen] that got the video out there.”
Whitman, a 6-foot, 245-pound outfielder, has been grabbing headlines since his freshman year when he started 44 games as the designated hitter. The 6-foot, 245-pound outfielder hit .303 and scored 33 runs that season. Whitman also smashed 14 home runs and racked up 18 multi-hit games.
“During my recruiting trip, one of the main things that coach [Paul O’Neil] told me was that I was going to come in and make an immediate impact during my first year, and I did,” Whitman said.
His average improved to .321 as a sophomore, although he only hit six home runs. But he scored 27 runs and tallied 25 RBI. Whitman hit .310 a year ago, belted 14 homers and tallied 53 RBI.
“All of the work we do as a team, and all of the different hitting drills and everything that we do make ourselves better for a game is what has been the key to my success,” Whitman said. “I’ve definitely made a huge improvement in my game over the years. Seeing the college-level pitching as a freshman, you get used to it and start understanding how pitchers are going to throw to you.”
Whitman has a background in football as well. He helped lead Elkin High School (N.C.) to three state football championships and said he has used that experience to his advantage during his baseball career.
“In football, it was always all about playing hard, being super competitive and having that drive to win,” Whitman said. “You also have to work hard on and off the field. In football, you always see everybody working really hard in the weight room and I have done that the past four years. My strength has helped with a lot of my power.”
The fact that Whitman has been such a force at the plate is only part of his story. Whitman is also on top of his game in the classroom, earning COSIDA Academic All-District honors earlier this month. The biology major has a 3.31 cumulative GPA.
“You have to want to do well in school, go to your classes and study for tests,” Whitman said. “You can’t just expect to make good grades or expect to get good grades just because you are an athlete.”
Whitman didn’t have a hit in the 2-1 win against Augusta State in the championship game of the PBC tournament, but on the year, he is batting .357 with 60 hits. His hit total includes 14 doubles and 10 home runs. His home run total for his career is 44.
Whitman has also drawn 26 walks and has been hit by a pitch 12 times.
Chances are Whitman will deliver in the NCAA tourney. This, after all, is the time of the year when survival counts for everything.
The Braves (42-10), ranked 10th in the nation and third in the Southeast Regional poll, have clinched an automatic berth to the tournament. They will storm into NCAA tourney play with a nine-game win streak.
“Everything in the playoffs comes down to winning and losing as a team,” Whitman said. “Nothing can be individual. It all has to be what is best for the team and having the approach of ‘what am I going to do to make the team better?’”
While Whitman dreams of leading the Braves to a national championship, he also knows he has a shot to play at the next level. There is a chance, however, that he could take his fifth year of eligibility and play football for Pembroke in the fall.
“I definitely want to pursue (a pro baseball career), but I am not really sure where I stand right now,” Whitman said. “If it comes to where I get drafted and I can play a little longer, I want to take the opportunity that has been given to me.”
For now, it’s all about seizing the final moments of his stellar collegiate baseball career.
“I am super motivated to make a huge push in the playoffs with this being my last year,” Whitman said. “We know we have a special team and we want to take it as far as we can.”