If you look at all the teams in college baseball across the country, you may not find a more intriguing lineup than the one right here in Murfreesboro.
In the heart of that order, where the biggest and most powerful hitters make names for themselves, stands 5-foot-4 second baseman Ryan Kemp.
Kemp is measured as the smallest three-hole hitter in the NCAA, but you wouldn’t be able to tell based on the big-time numbers he puts up on the stat sheet. The Hendersonville, Tennessee, native is currently third on the team with an impressive .350 batting average, and his six home runs are second on the team. He also ranks fifth in Conference USA with a .617 slugging percentage.
Before he started putting up ridiculous numbers for the potent Blue Raider offense, Kemp, a junior, wasn’t even sure if he would make it out of the junior college ranks.
After his first practice in his freshman year at Columbia State Community College in nearby Columbia, Tennessee, Kemp called home and told his dad that he would never get to play collegiate baseball.
“I told my dad that every single player on that field was better than me. They could field better than me, they had stronger arms, they’re bigger than me,” Kemp said. “He told me, ‘Just do what you do. Play hard and the rest will take care of itself. You’ve done it your whole life and there’s no reason to quit now.'”
Kemp’s father, Todd, was a hall of fame pitcher at Tennessee Tech from 1985-88. He encouraged his son to stick with the sport and never stop competing, and that’s just what he did.
He tore up the junior college ranks, hitting .404 his freshman season and stepping closer to living his dream as a Division I baseball player.
The tough time at the beginning of his junior college career wasn’t the first rough patch of Kemp’s path.
His size in high school deterred college coaches from recruiting him, and often being overlooked by Division I programs took a toll on his confidence.
“The last six years have been incredibly hard, a lot harder than most people’s routes, and that has a lot to do with size,” Kemp said. “From an early stage, you don’t get recruited for the right reasons. The five tools are important, but I think they are blown way out of proportion. I think character is a huge factor that gets overlooked in baseball recruitment.”
Kemp continued to compete in high school and eventually at Columbia State, where he caught the eye of Blue Raider Head Coach Jim McGuire.
“His competitiveness was one of the biggest reasons we recruited him, I don’t think there was any question,” McGuire said. “I’ve been watching him since he was a freshman in high school. He’s had to overcome a lot, and that’s the way that he plays every day, because he feels like he has something to prove and he just keeps getting better and better.”
The start to the 2017 campaign didn’t get off to the start Kemp was hoping for, as he suffered a hamstring injury in the second game of the season that sidelined him for two weeks. He then re-aggravated the injury in his first game back, setting him back another two weeks.
Along with the injury, Kemp was subpar at the plate. He started hitting in the bottom of the order and sported just a .143 average in his first seven games as a Blue Raider.
“In the beginning of the year, I was struggling, and it hurt, it really hurt,” Kemp said. “The injury was insult to injury – it was a low place in my life, because I knew in my heart that I could help the team win ball games. I was depressed because this is my livelihood, this is the dream, Division I baseball is what I’ve been working towards for the last 15 years of my life. And when it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to go individually, it hurt a lot, and that was one of those moments where I said I need to stop being a baby about it and find out what I need to do to come back and start playing the way that I know I can.”
Since returning from injury, the second baseman has been red hot at the dish, hitting a healthy .394.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I think that the injury and the fact that I started off slower than I ever wanted to was a life lesson. You keep working hard, and if you want it bad enough it will happen for you.”
As the season has started to turn around for Kemp, the accolades have followed.
The week before he moved up to third in the lineup, the junior earned Tennessee Sports Writer Association Hitter of the Week for his 10-for-15 combined performance against Tennessee and Old Dominion.
He has slowly made his way up in the powerful Blue Raider lineup, hitting in the three-spot the previous 12 games, a place that he has never hit in before.
Kemp has made the seamless transition to the three-hole, hitting .340 since making the move while ranking tops on the team with six doubles, tied for second with three homers, second with 16 runs and third with a .640 slugging percentage during the stretch.
“I’ve always been doubted a little bit by my coaches, and I think it’s funny,” Kemp said. “I always start at the bottom of the lineup, and I understand. They look and me and say ‘He’s 5-foot-4, why in the world would we put him anywhere other than at the bottom of the order?’ And it’s fine; I’ve just always had to prove myself, had to earn that spot in the lineup.”
He has proven to not only himself but also to McGuire that he has no problem hitting in a huge spot in the lineup.
“Did I think he was going to be hitting in the three-hole? No,” McGuire said. “Again, he’s just a great competitor, he wants to be the best at his position, the best on the field. It means a lot to him. You can see it come out as the competition has gotten better, and as the situations keep getting tougher, he keeps fighting through it and bring his game up to whatever level it needs to be to get the job done.”
Kemp has been pivotal to the Blue Raiders’ improvement in every offensive statistical category from a season ago. He is embracing his new role, while continuing to prove people wrong every step of the way.
“You know, I stood out in high school because of my height and it hurt me, it was easy to overlook me because I’m small. But, in college there are very few guys, if any, that are 5-foot-4 and batting in the three-hole. It’s fun, because you like to see the ‘little guy’ win, and it’s what baseball stands for – anyone can play as long as you have a heart and a mind and some talent, because size doesn’t matter.”
As long as the “little guy” keeps making big-time plays, the MT offense will only get better as the season goes on.