UofL baseball star Brendan McKay is such a talented athlete and pleasant person that it’s really kind of annoying.
Everything seems to come easy for him.
He has been an All-American every year in college.
He may be the top college hitter and pitcher this year.
And you’d have a hard time getting even a sour look from him.
McKay must have some kind of dark side.
With a little prodding, UofL catcher Colby Fitch, who rooms with McKay on road games, spills it.
“Every night before a game, about 11:30, he cracks open a cold Mountain Dew,” Fitch said. “That’s our thing. Mountain Dew and sugar. He loves some candy … He’s a little kid at heart.”
A little kid who plays and thinks like an adult. Watching him, he seems more Buddhist than Bull Durham. He moves with an ease, grace and serenity.
“I think when you take composure and take it to any level, it allows you to be free in your mind and free in your body,” McKay said.
His can-do-everything attitude has Major League Baseball teams confused.
He may be the first player selected in the MLB June amateur draft — the Minnesota Twins have the first pick — and teams aren’t sure whether to take him as a pitcher or a hitter.
McKay, 21, a junior left-handed pitcher and first baseman, is a star on the mound for No. 2-ranked Louisville (46-9) and is hitting .361 with 15 home runs. As a pitcher he is 8-3 with a 2.22 earned-run average.
McKay just doesn’t believe there is anything to gain by stomping around the mound after a call he disagrees with, or even glaring at the umpire.
“I had somebody who saw him play this summer with USA Baseball who said, ‘You could drop him in a big-league stadium right now, and he’s going to act like he’s playing at a high school,’” UofL Coach Dan McDonnell said. “That’s just the demeanor you don’t see often with college kids.”
Surely, being the best college baseball player in the nation and a soon-to-be millionaire was the result of nothing but determination, hard work and overcoming all kinds of obstacles. Right?
“I guess you could say it was easy,” said McKay, who has a list of awards that would kill a couple trees if you printed them out. He was a first-team college baseball All-American his first two seasons and has been the Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher or player of the week a record seven times. This week, he and UofL are hosting the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament at Louisville Slugger Field and play Notre Dame at 7 p.m. Thursday.
He also won the John Olerud award for the best two-way college baseball player in the nation his freshman and sophomore years.
“It comes easy to him, but at the same time he puts in the work,” Fitch said. “He’s naturally gifted but he works day in, day out. He has worked his tail off to get where he is today.”
Drafted out of high school
Even McKay’s upbringing is a throwback. He grew up in Darlington, Pennsylvania, in the far western part of the state near the Ohio and West Virginia borders.
Being a professional baseball player has been McKay’s dream pretty much since he was 5 years old. His dad tossed him baseballs and his grandparents videotaped all of his tee-ball games.
McKay was crazy about the game.
“I wanted to play as much as I could,” he said. “When I went to a friend’s house, I would always try to get them to play baseball. That’s what I wanted to do all the time.”
Of course, there were not a lot of distractions in Darlington.
“Really the only ruckus is hunting season, when you’ve got people shooting things,” he said. “That’s about the craziest you get.”
By age 12, he was such a good hitter that teams walked him rather than watch the ball sail over the fence. So his father, Bruce McKay, moved Brendan up to play with the 13- and 14-year-olds in Pony League.
As a high school senior, McKay attracted scouts and some national attention to tiny Blackhawk High School in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, with a 70-plus inning scoreless streak. He was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 34th round out of high school, but chose to come to Louisville when the Padres wouldn’t bite at the signing bonus he asked for.
Since he has been at Louisville, watching games has been harder for McKay’s parents and grandparents.
Bruce McKay is a housing remodeler and Kim McKay is a bank teller in Darlington. They schedule time off work to make the 6 ½ hour drive to as many games as they can.
Weekends are the best bet. Typically, McKay pitches Friday games. Saturday he takes a bit of a break and is the designated hitter. On Sundays he plays first base.
That’s still easier than keeping up with him in the off-season. Last summer he was on the U.S. Collegiate National Team for USA Baseball that played in Taiwan, Japan and Cuba.
His parents would get up at 3 a.m. before going to work to follow games on the Internet on YouTube or GameTracker, which displays the stats in close to real time.
“Then we’d try to stay up late enough to talk to him at the right time,” Kim McKay said. “It was like living on two time zones all summer.”
McKay, who has two semesters left to complete his Sports Administration degree, said he is taking a class this summer and plans to come back in the fall to complete an internship requirement.
When asked whether signing a pro contract would change his life, he said he has thought about ways to help pay back his parents for their support and sacrifice.
”I have a couple ideas in my mind right now,” he said. ”If I see something that this would really help them out or something that they may have really wanted — a big gift for them — I will do that.”
Pitch or hit?
McKay, who is listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds, is considered one of the best hitters in college baseball. He also has a 94-mph fastball and a curveball that scouts like even better.
Left-handed pitchers are at a premium, but there also aren’t many hitters who look like you might be able to plug them into a major-league lineup quickly.
Multiple mock MLB drafts list him as the first pick in the June 12 draft. College players are eligible to be drafted after their junior years.
McKay said that when he met with scouts this fall, the question they led off with was whether he’d rather pitch or hit.
“I don’t even know yet, because I’ve never really had to give up one,” he said.
One National League scout who was sure at the start of the season that McKay would be drafted as a pitcher has really been impressed with his hitting.
“He’s strong, but he’s not trying to hit every single ball over the fence,” said the scout, who asked not to be identified speaking about a particular prospect. “He’s trying to work the opposite field. He actually has a game plan as a hitter. He’s working. He’s looking to hit the ball where it’s pitched. He kind of stays within himself.”
McKay would happily keep pitching and hitting, but that’s as likely as MLB teams letting fans in free like UofL baseball does for regular-season games.
“He can do both,” said a scout for another NL team, who also asked not to be identified. “I will say, with the new age of general managers in baseball, I think they are open to all different types of ideas, where maybe years ago, they’d probably be more traditional.”
Whether he gets a shot to try both in the pros or is slotted as a pitcher or first baseman, McKay is especially good at making the best of what you give him. Things out of his control include who drafts him and where they want him to play.
Being rattled or worrying about what he can’t control is not in his equipment bag.
“It’s not going to be in your hands how things may happen,” McKay said. “You do your best either way — pitching or hitting. One team may need a left-handed pitcher. Another team may need a left-handed first baseman-hitter. So it’s up to their discretion of what they need at that time.”
Their discretion and wallet.
Last year, the top two players drafted signed for more than $6 million, according to MLB.com, and the next five all signed for more than $4 million. That includes Corey Ray, Louisville’s slugging outfielder who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers as the No. 5 overall pick.
21 going on 35
Louisville knew it was getting a player with a chance to play both ways when McKay signed as a freshman. What the coaches didn’t quite appreciate was McKay’s maturity and dedication.
“We knew he was good as a freshman,” UofL ‘s McDonnell said, “but you never know how consistent or if they are going to be able to do it for the length of a season or do it back-to-back years, and he’s doing it now in year three.”
He will do whatever is needed — including getting in his pitching workouts after stepping off the bus from a road trip, or getting up early to lift and stretch with pitchers while many teammates are still asleep.
“He is a 21-year-old playing with like a 35-year-old brain,” McDonnell said. “He plays the game like a professional.”
From the start, McKay impressed coaches with his composure. So when All-American relief pitcher Zach Burdi was injured, they plugged McKay in as a freshman in the pressure-filled closer spot. Even though he’d had little college pitching experience.
“Nothing ever seemed to faze him,” pitching coach Roger Williams said.
He wound up with four saves as a reliever and became a starter, going 9-3 that year.
When things go bad, as they are going to do at times in baseball, McKay doesn’t just shrug it off; he tries to take something from every misfortune and turn it into a positive.
When McKay gave up a two-run home run in April in a 2-1 loss to Wake Forest, he just acknowledged he wasn’t throwing the ball quite where he wanted and focused on pitching better the rest of the game.
“After that home run I kind of said, ‘All right just keep hitting the spot and throwing strikes,’” he said.
That attitude is his edge.
“That’s a huge thing for us to see guys go out there and compete and just make pitches when they have to,” said an NL scout.
A World Series?
What especially motivates McKay and his teammates this season is the chance to go to the College World Series.
McKay, who grew up thinking that the University of Texas was the place to go to play college baseball, wound up at Louisville largely because it seemed like the best opportunity to make the CWS.
The Cards, who have made three CWS trips, were close to going again the past two years but lost in playoff games on a contested extra-inning home run in 2015 and a stunning ninth-inning grand slam last year in a 4-3 loss to UC Santa Barbara.
They go into the postseason this year as the top-seeded team in the ACC and host of the ACC tournament at Louisville Slugger Field through Sunday. The Cardinals open Thursday against No. 12-seeded Notre Dame.
After that come the NCAA regionals. The baseball brackets will be announced on Monday. Anything less than a trip to the CWS in Omaha, Nebraska, would be a letdown.
McKay said he came into the season thinking about all the things he and his teammates could have done to make those games end differently.
The Cardinals jump-started the annual push for the College World Series with the Omaha Challenge in the fall. It’s a six-day contest that includes players competing in events such as a tug-of-war, tire flip, paintball, a bike race and more.
“You say, ‘I’m going to put myself through as much stress and pain or whatever with lifting, the Omaha Challenge, through as much physical and mental torture so when it comes to crunch time you’re not going to even be worried about it,’’’ McKay said. “You’re going to play like it’s nothing.”
College World Series or no, expect to see more of McKay.
“The future is bright,” teammate Fitch said. “I think it’s endless opportunities for him. When you look at him you see a pro-ready hitter, you see a pro-ready pitcher. You get the best of both worlds with him. So if one is not working or one doesn’t end up working out, you’ve always got the other one.” •