Jeff McKenzie has a leg up on everyone else in the race for the Western Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year award.
McKenzie, a senior left-hander for Cal State Bakersfield, is off to a 6-1 start with a 1.17 ERA. He's wowed WAC observers by winning three of the last four WAC Pitcher of the Week honors. McKenzie has allowed only one earned run in his last 351/3 innings with three shutouts in his last four games.
And all of this has happened because of his final junior college game for San Joaquin Delta College of Stockton on May 29, 2011.
Playing for the state JC championship at Bakersfield College, Delta faced Ohlone College of Fremont, near Oakland.
Delta had forced a winner-take-all final game in the double-elimination tournament with a 5-3 win earlier that day.
Delta was playing its fifth game in three days and was out of pitchers. So McKenzie -- the Mustangs' starting center fielder all season -- was chosen to pitch in the title game. He had thrown only five innings all year prior to the title-game appearance.
As he was warming up, McKenzie said his coach told him, "All right, Jeff, we don't need a miracle out of you. We just need a solid start."
McKenzie responded with a seven-hitter and a 4-1 win. He also picked off four baserunners and was named MVP of the Final Four tournament.
McKenzie said his best four-year college offer at that point was from Armstrong Atlantic University in Savannah, Ga., a Division II school where he'd get a chance to pitch and play outfield if he accepted its scholarship offer.
"I had the one D-II school interested, a couple of D-III schools and some NAIAs in places like Oklahoma and Ohio,” McKenzie said.
Another D-I school, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, had shown mild interest but wasn’t willing to bring McKenzie out for a visit. “I wasn’t going to go someplace I didn’t know or couldn’t see,” he said.
CSUB coach Bill Kernen had seen some of the Final Four games that weekend but wasn’t at McKenzie’s gem because the Roadrunners had a game that day.
But former Roadrunner Brandon Boren was there, and he suggested Kernen should check out McKenzie.
“I was coaching at BC then so I had to help out with the field and had to watch every game,” said Boren, now CSUB’s first-base and infield coach.
“He gave up seven hits, picked off four or five guys and was just cruising,” Boren said. “Kind of like he is today: not overpowering but hits his spots.
“He did all the right things that day. He was completely in control. Nothing flustered him. He was very consistent from the first pitch to the last pitch.”
McKenzie still had to decision whether to take the full scholarship offered by Armstrong Atlantic or accept a half-scholarship from CSUB.
“I had been told my whole life that I’d never play D-I,” McKenzie said. “That I’d never make it past high school or JC. Maybe I’d play D-III.
“The main reason I came to Bakersfield was to prove everyone wrong, that I can play at the D-I level and that I can play at a high level of baseball.”
But that meant one other change: McKenzie would be a full-time pitcher at CSUB and no longer a position player.
“I’ve been hitting my whole life, playing infield and outfield my whole life,” he said. “I rarely pitched growing up which is probably why my arm is so healthy now. Putting down the bat and not being able to pick it up again was definitely one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
McKenzie said Kernen told him he’d likely be one of the team’s top-six pitchers in 2012. But McKenzie got surprised before the 2012 season opener when told he’d be the Roadrunners’ Friday night starter, which goes to a team’s No. 1 starter. McKenzie responded with a 6-5 record last season and led the Roadrunners in ERA (2.67), strikeouts (69) and innings (1071⁄3) and was named Independent Pitcher of the Year by CollegeSportsMadness.com.
He remains CSUB’s Friday night starter this season and gets the ball tonight when the Roadrunners (19-10 overall, 4-2 WAC) play at co-WAC leading Texas Arlington (15-12, 5-1).
“These are the best series,” McKenzie said. “Playing a team that might be ahead of you or right behind you so they’re trying to get that first-place spot. But now we’re trying to get that first-place spot. If we’re able to get a couple of games from them it would be huge for us.”
McKenzie is the first person to acknowledge he’s not an overpowering pitcher.
“I don’t blow guys up on 95 mph fastballs,” said McKenzie, who has added a cut fastball, slider and knuckleball this season to the fastball, curve and change-up he relied on exclusively last season.
“I’ve got to rely on other things like command, movement and mixing up speeds. That’s what’s helped me. ... I can throw all my pitches at any point of the game. Most guys can’t. They have to rely on their fastball, mostly.”
CSUB catcher Frank Martinez said McKenzie’s control is a huge advantage.
“He can throw all his pitches for strikes whenever he wants,” Martinez said. “He does a good job of keeping the ball down which makes it harder for batters to hit those pitches.”
Boren noted that McKenzie’s college career could be completely different had Delta lost the first game that Sunday nearly two years ago, which would have eliminated that team before McKenzie had a chance to pitch the next game.
“I thought about that the other day,” Boren said. “He would have never gotten a chance to pitch. He’d probably be playing outfield at some D-II school now.”
McKenzie said his goal after this season is to sign a pro contract. The recent shutout games have been noticed by pro scouts.
“It’s been my dream to play professional baseball since I was 3 years old,” McKenzie said, adding that he has filled out questionnaires sent to him by the Giants, Rockies and Marlins. “Any chance I get I’ll jump on it.”