Baseball notes: First-year transfer making big impact on Purdue
For a week, Cole McKenzie was in a funk.
It happens in baseball, but that makes it no less pleasant, particularly for a player being counted on to produce in the middle of a lineup that’s searching for consistency.
But now McKenzie, mired in a 1-of-23 from March 29 to April 7, can put that in the past, as the junior has three multi-hit games in his last five outings, with two doubles, his first career homerun and seven runs driven in.
“He’s starting to come through with two outs and he’s really been a guy who has come up big for us, dating back to IU (on April 10),” said Coach Mark Wasikowski after Tuesday’s 5-3 win over Butler, when McKenzie had two RBI, including one on a two-out single up the middle, and scored the game-winning run. “… He had some really clutch hits there (at IU), so it’s nice to see.”
It’s been hugely beneficial to Purdue (12-23 overall, 5-6 in the Big Ten), as the Boilermakers have struggled to find run producers — consistently — especially with others in the lineup going down to injury. Left-fielder Ben Nisle has been out more than a month with a back issue and first baseman Nick Evarts has missed nearly two weeks with a pulled upper hamstring.
“The coaches have put a lot of trust in me and made me a lot more comfortable than what I was at the beginning of the season,” said McKenzie, a first-year Boilermaker who transferred in from Yakima Valley, JC. “I kept putting in work and it paid off in the end.
“The coaches are always saying ‘Trust the process. Trust the process’ and it’s really paying off now that I’ve really bought into it. The work that they put in with us helps us a lot.”
McKenzie, who bats left and has a .259 average with 14 RBI this season, has been a consistent in the middle of Purdue’s lineup, starting all 35 of the Boilermakers’ games. Where he’s played, however, has been inconsistent. A natural outfielder, McKenzie converted to first base during fall, then played there the first half of the season. But Evarts’ rise at the position at the end of March allowed him to move back to right.
Of course, now Evarts’ injury has McKenzie back at first. In all, he's played 16 games at first and 19 in the outfield.
“I’m happy to play anywhere as long as I’m being productive for the team,” said McKenzie, a Billings, Mt., native. “Going into it, I thought I was going to play outfield, but I’ve accepted the role of playing first base very well. At first, I was kind of nervous because it’s a new area I’ve never played before in my life. But I’ve gotten a lot better.”
After beating Butler in Tuesday's midweek game, the Boilermakers travel to Rutgers (13-19, 5-4) for three games in what could be a critical series in determining the eight-team field for May's Big Ten Tournament.
Purdue, which sits in ninth place right now (behind eighth-place Rutgers), has won only one of its last six conference games after a 4-1 start. Rutgers, meanwhile, swept its first-ever three-game Big Ten series last weekend, outscoring Michigan State 18-5.
“Getting something going would be really fantastic for us,” McKenzie said. “We’ve had a roller coaster ride, but if we stick to it, we’ll keep going up, and that’s what we need right now.”
As Tuesday night's game ended, Purdue wasn't yet ready to announce its weekend starters for the trip to Rutgers.
It's likely to need two, following the ineffectiveness of Friday night man Patrick J. Smith and the injury to Sunday starter Ryan Beard.
The only known is likely Andrew Bohm (0-4, 6.38 ERA), who had been starting on Saturdays. The sophomore could move up to Friday night, a week after he started Purdue's only win over Iowa. In that game, the right-hander gave up four earned runs in 5 1/3 innings with five strikeouts but five walks.
Smith, who had made four straight Friday night starts, is unlikely to do for the opener at Rutgers. The senior has struggled in his last two starts, giving up eight earned runs — and 13 total — in only four combined innings. He pitched two-thirds innings of relief vs. Butler, walking two and giving up a run.
Beard is out, after appearing to injure a knee while fielding a bunt vs. Iowa Sunday. It ended his day early after the senior had pitched seven solid.
Perhaps reliever Trent Johnson is an option; the sophomore has been excellent out of the 'pen this season, with a 3.21 ERA in 17 appearances, and he has 44 strikeouts in 28 innings.
Freshman James Kulak could get a shot. The left-hander had made three consecutive midweek starts, previous to Butler. After having shoulder inflammation that shut him down a month, Kulak has been building back up the pitch count. Against Indiana in his last start, he struggled in the first before settling in, allowing three runs in three-and-a-third with six strikeouts.
“I didn’t really have any set expectations (before the year), but I was going to come in and work as hard as I could and earn whatever role that I can,” Kulak said. “I just wanted to see, help, fit in somewhere.”
Purdue likely will get junior Dalton Parker back, after the opening-day starter has been sidelined since March 1, although that's likely in a relief role.
The Boilermakers did get other good news Tuesday, when Cory Brooks made his long-awaited debut; the redshirt freshman missed all of 2018 and half of this season after an elbow injury. The RHP struck out three and gave up a hit — and also hit two batters — in two scoreless innings vs. the Bulldogs.
“He was really good for us, the fall of his freshman year, we felt like he’d be a weekend starter, probably a Sunday-type guy to begin with, and then he ends up getting hurt over the Christmas break when we’re not even around him, which really was disappointing," Wasikowski said. "But he was going for it during the offseason and ended up injuring himself and the next thing you know it’s a long recovery. So to get him back on the mound, especially with some of the things that have gone on with our club, in terms of injuries, it’s nice to have someone joining our club, from the injury side of things, so that’s nice to see.”
Big Baseball Podcast
Ohio State needed a rebound last weekend, after it had been swept — at home — by Northwestern its previous Big Ten series.
And the Buckeyes did so, beating rival Michigan two games to one. It's been that kind of up-and-down season for OSU. Ninth-year coach Greg Beals was on the Big Baseball Podcast this weekend to talk about the Buckeyes' season.
🎙️ New podcast! @Husker_Baseball has surged in front in the crowded Big Ten. We'll take a look at the standings at the midpoint (for some) of the season. Plus our convo with @bealsy9 of @OhioStateBASE, the @IlliniBaseball-@GopherBaseball series and more.https://t.co/HOXkkyUMUf— The Big Baseball Podcast (@BigBaseballPod) April 16, 2019
Purdue has now had six significant players miss time due to injury: Pitchers Parker, Beard, Brooks and reliever Trevor Cheaney, and position players Nisle and Evarts. ... Rutgers took two of three from Purdue in the schools' last meeting in New Jersey in 2017. ... Friday's first pitch is at 2 p.m.
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