McKenzie, Richardson stepping up early

Jared McKenzie reaches second base during Baylor's 9-0 win in game one of the double header against Memphis Saturday. DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

By DJ Ramirez | Sports Editor

Jared McKenzie and Tre Richardson have big shoes to fill, but it doesn’t seem like they’re having a hard time filling them. The second-year freshmen have proved to be a pair of spark plugs for Baylor baseball, leading Baylor’s offense and providing some clutch defensive plays through the first 11 games of the season.

McKenzie hasn’t missed a beat since batting .406 as a true freshman in 2020 and being named an All-American by Collegiate Baseball. The Round Rock native, who took over the center field position after the departure of Richard Cunningham, currently leads not just Baylor, but also the conference in hits (20) and runs scored (18) and is tied for first in home runs with five. Just like Cunningham before him, McKenzie holds the lead-off spot in the lineup, batting .408/.755/.444 after 11 games in 2021. He’s also fifth in the conference in RBI with 13, right behind senior catcher Andy Thomas (14) and is 2-for-2 in stolen bases.

McKenzie said he’s definitely had the chance to learn a few things from Cunningham during the last few seasons as the former center fielder has been calling Baylor games for Big 12 Now recently.

“I was fortunate enough to meet him when I came here on a visit my junior year of high school,” McKenzie said. “We’re from the same area, so being able to come in to fill his big shoes is pretty tough to do, but it challenges me. He’s a great guy, and it’s nice to hear him on the call, especially when I go back and rewatch the games. It’s nice.”

Defensively, McKenzie has proven his mettle with a .973 fielding average, making just one error this season. Against Memphis in the Saturday double header, he made a leaping catch, crashing into the wall, to keep the Tigers from scoring.

“Obviously, everybody sees the home runs and just some of the things he does with the bat,” head coach Steve Rodriguez said of his center fielder. “He can be a total package in regards to the defense and the offense and the base running. And so those are the things that I think people don’t recognize… Luckily Jared is such a great offensive force, but at the same time on defense, he does a great job really commanding that center field area… Not to mention he’s only a freshman, so he’ll be fun to have for a while.”

Richardson has probably had a more daunting task, taking over at shortstop now that Baylor’s most recent first-round draft pick, Nick Loftin, is gone. Although the Kingwood native only had 10 appearances last season, he’s taken over the third spot in the lineup like a bird to flight, hitting .364 with 13 runs scored, 16 hits and six RBI. He’s also a perfect 3-for-3 in stolen bases. Richardson crushed his first-career homer last Tuesday against Sam Houston to cap off Baylor’s 4-0 shutout.

“He’s an outstanding player — super young, super talented, super quick. He’s got really fast hands, got a great arm” Thomas said of Richardson after the win over the Bearkats. “He’s a complete package player.”

Despite racking up five defensive errors during the first two weeks of the season, Richardson has also had stellar plays, including an impressive throw as the cutoff man during a relay to home plate that kept the shutout going for the Bears in game one of the double header.

“We practice that all the time,” Richardson said. “They’re usually going to go first to home, because that’s one of the deeper parts of the ballpark. So it was just a matter of lining myself up and trusting my ability to be able to get there to home plate. Luckily, Andy makes my job a lot easier whenever you skip balls to him.”

Baylor has been explosive on offense, led by its young guns as well as consistent performances from its veterans that have come in handy during clutch situations. The Bears currently lead the Big 12 with a .332 team batting average.

Baylor is scheduled to face off against LSU and UTSA Saturday in Baton Rouge before returning to Baylor Ballpark against the Roadrunners next Tuesday for a midweek game.