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West Coast kid mystifies River Bats

Jeff McKenzie had never been to Minnesota before three weeks ago. But when the head coach of your new Division I college baseball team tells you to go, you don't waste time asking directions.

McKenzie came from California in late June to fill a vacancy in the Rochester Honkers' pitching staff, and the crafty left-hander is helping the team turn things around on the mound and the scoreboard after a rough first half.

McKenzie pitched a two-hitter through eight innings and Rochester notched its fifth straight win 3-2 over the St. Cloud River Bats on Wednesday night at Mayo Field. Austin House (New Mexico) pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his fifth save.

"I basically had no choice (in coming here); my new coach at CSU-Bakersfield sent me here," said McKenzie, a 6-foot and 165-pound pitcher who is coming off a successful sophomore season at San Joaquin Delta College in El Dorado Hill, Ca.

"I got recruited by CSU-Bakersfield and they wanted me to get some innings in against Division I hitters, so here I am," McKenzie explained.

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McKenzie got his first win in a Honkers uniform, in his third start, and evened his record at 1-1 while keeping his ERA round 2.70. He finished strong, retiring the last eight batters he faced.

"In his first start in Mankato (McKenzie) was nibbling on the corners of the plate and trying to fool the batters," said Honkers pitching coach Peter Burg. "We talked to him about being aggressive and going after people, and he did a great job of that tonight."

Burg said that McKenzie doesn't overpower batters, but it's his repertoire and his command that make him a Division I pitcher. McKenzie mixed his pitches well to keep the River Bats guessing all night, Burg said.

"His strength is that he throws four pitches and he can throw all four for strikes on any count," Burg said, noting McKenzie's command of his fast ball, curve, change-up and knuckle ball.

"He doesn't use the knuckler that much but it's a pretty valuable pitch to have because it gets the batters thinking. They go back to the dugout and say, 'Geez, that guy just threw me a knuckle ball', and now they're thinking about having to face it."

It was Rochester's fifth quality pitching start in six games in the second half, and Burg said that has been the key to the team's 6-1 start and early lead in the North Division.

"Our bullpen has been excellent all season; we have one of the best bullpens in the league," he said. "If our starters can just get us through the early innings and get us to our bullpen, we stand a really good chance of winning."

McKenzie hopes he can do for the Honkers what he did for Delta State, which he helped lead to the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) state championship in June.

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McKenzie was the winning pitcher in the championship game and threw a complete game in a 4-1 win over Ohlone Community College.

"It was basically everything you could imagine as a kid, being the winning pitcher and striking out the final batter for the last out in the (state) championship game," he said.

The Honkers provided just enough offensive support and also made several exceptional plays on defense to preserve the win.

Lead-off hitter Tony Kemp (Vanderbilt) doubled to start the game, and he scored on an infield hit off the pitcher by Johnny Coy (Wichita State).

Rochester went up 3-0 in the second inning with two runs on three hits, a walk, a hit batter and a St. Cloud error. Devin Thaut (Southern Polytechnic St.) and Aaron Jones (Oregon) provided RBI singles.

Thaut made a great play at shortstop in the fourth inning, making a diving catch as he ran toward left field to keep a probable run from scoring from second base. Second baseman Davy Wright (TCU) made a diving stop and a throw-out in the sixth, and he ended the game with another fine play toward the hole that looked like a hit.

"Ever since the second half started we just threw a switch and we're playing better," McKenzie said.

"It's definitely a better feeling that the first half of the season," Burg said. "When we come out to the park now everyone is expecting to win."

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