By Jason Wyrick
Photo By Jared Anderson
Yesterday, Dan McDonnell’s Louisville Cardinals punched the first ticket to the College World Series in 2019. For Coach Mac, this is Omaha trip number five in 13 seasons at the helm of the Louisville program. They faced multiple adversarial predicaments early in the postseason and then a rather angry East Carolina team to get to this point and it’s the journey of the last few weeks that truly defines this team. Let us start from the beginning.
These Cardinals went 43-13 in the regular season. They dominated the Atlantic division en route to an outright ACC regular season title, the fourth in five years in the conference. Just another season at the office under McDonnell.
Then came the postseason.
The Cards boarded a flight to North Carolina and expected more of the same when they arrived in Durham. Well, the players did. I still wonder about the bats, they never showed.
Top seed Louisville opened the ACC tournament with a matchup against Boston College, a bottom feeder of the conference and a team that mustered a last place finish in the Atlantic Division.
This was a classic David versus Goliath type of matchup. Unfortunately for the Cards, we all know how that tale ends.
Louisville’s nine were mowed down by Dan Metzdorf, a senior lefty from BC who pitched the game of his life, conceding a lone unearned run while going the distance for the first time in his collegiate career. The Eagles won 5-1.
With pool play having already sent the Eagles to the semi finals and the Cards packing after the round, a lone game against Clemson remained. On the line for the Tigers was a resume booster that could potentially get them into a regional. On the line for Louisville? Pride and potentially a national seed.
Clemson upset the dejected Cardinals in a 7-1 game that never really felt close. In the end, that game mattered a whole lot more for Clemson than it did Louisville. It put an otherwise bubble team firmly into the dance as the 3 seed in the Oxford regional, hosted by Ole Miss.
Louisville, despite laying an egg the conference tournament, still got a national seed. The Cards scraped by on their dominant regular season in the tough ACC to get the #7 national seed, one that guaranteed hosting the Super Regional if your squad plays in one. This came at the expense of East Carolina, a team that vehemently cried foul that they were snubbed. We will get back to that, I promise.
The Louisville regional opened last Friday with the third seeded Illinois State Redbirds upsetting the two seed Indiana Hoosiers. Louisville beatfourth seedIllinois-Chicago before also being damned to the losers’ bracket by the Cinderella Illinois State.
Indiana eliminated UIC in the first round of the losers’ bracket to set up a date with the Louisville Cardinals, a rematch of the May 14th barn burner that saw the Cards victorious in extra innings in Bloomington.
The rematch would be more of the same: competitive and intense. Louisville took an early lead thatIndiana had to chip away at for the remainder of the game. Up 9-5 with two outs in the eighth, closer Michael McAvene was called into action for a four-out save a day and a half removed from his first recorded fastball that reached triple digits, a 100 mph fireball to end the opening round against UIC.
McAvene, working with a four run lead, pitched loose and, although he gave up two runs along the way, looked poised to send the Hoosiers packing with two away in the ninth. With the go ahead run at the plate and 0-2 in the count, Michael was ready to slam the door when he felt the zone begin to tighten on him. He threw a very close pitch that looked to have painted the corner but was ultimately called a ball.
1-2. The batter was still in the hole. The next pitch was watched for what appeared to be strike three.
2-2. Still a pitch to the good, McAvene dealt a filthy curveball that was looked at for what appeared to be another strike three, crossing the plate at the knees before falling out of the would be zone behind the plate where the height no longer matters.
McAvene was in disbelief. What competitor wouldn’t be when the season is on the line and you’re one strike away from sending the other team home instead?
“That’s horrible.” McAvene said that in frustration as he turned around to step on the rubber and try one last time to put away the batter and the Indiana Hoosiers.
Those two words were what broke home plate umpire Ken Langford’s indubitably frail ego. He ejected Michael McAvene from the game for “arguing balls and strikes” without warning, knowing full well that an outlandish four-game suspension would follow. Umpires need to be held accountable and Ken Langford should be the first one reprimanded for his reprehensible knee jerk reaction to an ordinary competitor doing what he does: competing.
Michael Kirian took McAvene’s place and finished the game, recording a save with a lone pitch to strike out the Indiana batter and end their season.
McAvene, meanwhile was relegated to the clubhouse for the end of one game and the entirety of four more, the victim of a rule intended to punish starting pitchers equally to that of their position player counterparts: one start.
Of course, starting pitchers only play once every four games in college, generally speaking. Three weekend games and a midweek one. Obviously, you have to be creative with the vernacular of a rule to ensure adequate punishment for another position for which the main one-game suspension otherwise wouldn’t apply. The problem is that starting pitchers are different. Starters play once every four days. Relievers, especially closers are much more akin to position players in that they get called upon on a much more frequent basis. What is a one game punishment for starters and position players becomes a 300% increase in punishment for that of a bullpen arm.
Unfortunately for Michael McAvene, the vernacular was too vague and, although he may be the sacrifice needed to ensure a revision, he was the victim of that 300% ballooning of the punishment.
Louisville Athletics Director Vince Tyra reportedly met with the head of NCAA Baseball officiating in defense of his closer. That meeting very well might signal the beginning of the repair and revision of this unfortunate mishap. That is, if the NCAA has its head on straight and their thinking caps on. I think I speak for all of Card Nation when I say that I will believe it when I see it.
With their teammate banished to the clubhouse for what could have been the end of his collegiate career, the bats picked up Michael McAvene.
Still infuriated by the injustice of the morning‘s game, the Cardinal nine had another do-or-diegame to play: the championship round of the double-elimination regional. By advancing from the losers’ bracket, the Cards had to win to force a winner-take-all rematch the following day. And win they did.
The bats caught fire in the evening’s matchup against Illinois State, scorching the Redbirds for an 11-2 victory to force a game seven of the regional with a trip to the Super Regionals on the line.
The next day was more down to earth from the Cards, relatively speaking of course. Sure, they didn’t blaze through the Illinois State pitchers like they did the evening previous, but it looked like an entirely new team from what was shown in Durham.
What a difference one simple thing makes.
The clock struck midnight for Illinois State as the Cards squeaked by to punch their ticket to the Super Regional. It was an ugly game, but an ugly win is still a win. On to the Supers.
Waiting on the other side of the bracket for Louisville were the aforementioned East Carolina Pirates. Historically, they were 1-8 in the Super Regional round and they were poised to overcome the long odds of being a small conference team hosed out of hosting a Super Regional… or whatever their coach said. I stopped listening when he stopped making sense.
The Pirates were angry… or so they thought. Compared to Louisville’s squad though, the Pirates were mildly displeased.
Michael McAvene was unjustly suspended by a terrible judgment from an umpire and was punished four times over for his apparent transgression.
His teammates epitomized it: these boys were ANGRY.
Angry they were and angry they played. The Louisville lineup became a buzzsaw that sliced and diced right through every arm East Carolina threw at them. They won game one on Friday 14-1 behind a seven inning gem from ace Reid Detmers. That sure is a good way to compensate for your closer being suspended.
Game two was played yesterday. I believe most people expected the Saturday showdown to be much more competitive. I know I did. East Carolina was a good team who were playing for their season, after all. Oh, and they were still out to prove a point that they should’ve hosted this round.
Someone must’ve forgotten to tell Louisville.
The Cards scoffed at the thought of a game three and managed to sharpen the blade on the buzzsaw. Not only did the bats explode for another double digit outburst that itself would’ve won most games, sophomore Bobby Miller put an exclamation point on the statement the Cardinals made to all of college baseball. He took a no-hitter into the ninth inning of a Super Regional. He couldn’t finish it off, but he did only surrender the lone hit before he was given a curtain call by Dan McDonnell.
Chants of “Bob-by! Bob-by!” echoed throughout Jim Patterson Stadium as he handed the ball off to stand-in closer Michael Kirian and walked to the dugout. He hugged his teammates one by one and saluted the fans who cheered him on and chanted his name.
Kirian closed the game and put pen to paper on the statement to the rest of the college baseball world: be very afraid of the Louisville Cardinals.
Next Stop: Omaha
This Louisville team may not be the most talented group we’ve ever sent to Omaha. They are however, the most dangerous. Frankly, it isn’t close either. Postseason baseball is all about who gets hot at the right time and these Louisville Cardinals are scorching.
The Cards have four pitchers who can be trusted to start any game and keep you in striking distance to win. They have an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen, accentuated by the return of the fireballer Michael McAvene at the back end.
Then again, we already knew what this team was capable of on the mound. The question was always if the bats would come back to form. The last 10 days answered that question with a resounding yes.
These Louisville Cardinals have the look of a championship caliber team. The arms are dominant. The bats are scorching hot. They are playing angry and with a purpose. They were the first team to punch a ticket to the College World Series and will be well rested. Oh, and did I mention that the Cards only used four arms the entire Super Regional? Most of the bullpen (and second ace Nick Bennett) are all going into Omaha on close to two weeks of rest. Most importantly though, they have momentum firmly on their side.
This Louisville team is the most dangerous team in the country right now and it would surprise exactly no one if they were to win the whole thing in two weeks. These boys are playing with an unprecedented fire under them and ironically enough, the thin-skinned hothead behind the plate that day against Indiana is actually who Card Nation has to thank for it.
Jason Wyrick is a co-owner and contributor of River City Cards. He can be followed on Twitter @Steagles1.
--By Mike Gilpatrick
--Photo by Jared Anderson
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES BOUND!!!
The Louisville Cardinals have made it to Omaha for the fifth time in school history, after defeating East Carolina 12-0. In front of a sellout crowd, and with game time moved up three hours due to the threat of rain, Dan McDonnell’s Cardinals have made it to the promised land of college baseball, and will fight for a shot at an NCAA championship.
Dramatics surrounded the game. For starters, Bobby Miller pitched an absolute gem. He threw a no-hitter into the ninth inning. Through the first six innings, Miller only threw 58 pitches. In the seventh, he had to throw 20. Miller went eight innings, and gave up just one hit, and two walks. He struck out five Pirates.
Louisville scored three runs in the second, third, fifth, and ninth.
Drew Campbell opened scoring. The right-fielder hit a bases-clearing triple to the corner in left, scoring two-runners. The hit was just past the outstretched glove of the Pirates’ left fielder. Then, with the bases loaded and two outs, a wild pitch was thrown by ECU SP Alec Burleson. It sent one more runner home.
Justin Lavey added to the lead in the third. He hit a double to the right-field corner, plating Alex Binelas and Drew Campbell. Then, Henry Davis singled through the left side of the infield, putting Campbell across.
Davis added another run in the top of the fifth. He acted like he was pulling his bat back to avoid a strike, but made contact with a pitch and sent it to short right field. Then, Lucas Dunn plated another run with a groundout to short. Logan Wyatt extended Louisville’s lead to nine with an out to first.
Louisville added a pair of runs in the ninth. First, Lavey hit a double, scoring one run. Then, Zeke Pinkham singled in Lavey. Dunn doubled for Louisville’s third run of the inning.
With no outs in the ninth inning, pinch-hitter Thomas Francisco ripped a single to right field, ending the n0-hitter. Dan McDonnell came on after and pulled the Sophomore starting pitcher. Michael Kirian relieved him and the Cardinals won the Super Regional.
Louisville will have a few days to celebrate. The first College World Series game will take place on June 15th. It is the Cardinals fifth College World Series appearance.
--Photos by Jared Anderson and Roscelle Griffin
By Jason Wyrick
Photo by Roscelle Griffin
The Louisville Cardinals punched the East Carolina Pirates in the mouth in the first game of the Louisville Super Regional. Dan McDonnell’s squad waited for any retaliatory blows from ECU, but none ever came as the Cards repeatedly sucker punched the Pirates in a demoralizing 14-1 victory in game one.
Sophomore ace Reid Detmers took the hill and did not disappoint. Working around two jams early, he pitched four shutout innings going toe-to-toe with ECU ace and Yankees 4th round draft pick Jake Agnos.
Agnos’ day did not end as well as Detmers’.
In the 4th, Louisville saw the entire order come to the plate and put a four-spot on Agnos to end his day. The final line on Agnos was: 4.0 IP, 5 H, 4 ER.
It did not get any better for the Pirates.
ECU brought in six more pitchers and they didn’t exactly fare well against the Louisville nine, conceding another 10 runs in the next three innings before finally stopping the bleeding with a 1-2-3 bottom of the 8th already down 14-1.
Detmers, although he didn’t look as sharp as we know he can, still pitched a gem. He hung in there while the game was tight and played very loosely after his hitters gifted him an enormous lead. His final line was: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 6 K.
Freshman southpaw Garrett Schmeltz was entrusted with the 13 run lead in top of the 8th. The young gun from Pleasure Ridge Park was up for the challenge, closing the game out striking three of his eight batters faced, all without surrendering any runs.
The same two teams play tomorrow, June 8th at 12 noon at Jim Patterson Stadium with a trip to Omaha for the College World Series on the line. The game can be streamed on the ESPN app and will be broadcast on the radio on 93.9 the Ville.
Jason Wyrick is a co-owner and contributor of River City Cards. He can be followed on Twitter @Steagles1.
--By Mike Gilpatrick
--Photo by Jared Anderson
The Louisville Cardinals lost yesterday, which put them in the loser’s bracket- for one game. In order to fight for survival, the Cardinals would have to play two games on Sunday, and one on Monday.
Luckily, the top-seeded team in the Louisville regional would win both games, and will get an opportunity to play for a Super Regional berth tomorrow.
Here’s how game five and six of the Louisville regional went down:
Game Five- Cardinals survive late-game dramatics, soft ejection call
A four-run second helped propel the Cardinals to a 9-7 win over the Indiana Hoosiers; and an opportunity to play for another game against the Illinois State Redbirds. Indiana was in the loser’s bracket after losing to Illinois State on Friday in the first game of the regional. They were arguably the two-seed.
Bobby Miller got the start for the Cardinals, and delivered 5.1 innings, and surrendered four runs, all earned. All four of the runs were surrendered in the sixth inning.
Danny Oriente plated two unearned runs in the bottom of the second to open scoring. He doubled to right center field. Then, Justin Lavey scored Oriente and Drew Campbell on a single through the middle.
Alex Binelas homered to center in the third for another two runs. He also plated Tyler Fitzgerald on a groundout in the fifth.
Binelas recorded another RBI on a double to right center. Campbell drove in the freshman on a single to left.
With a 9-5 score in the ninth, the Hoosiers made it interesting. They scored two runs, but an argument about a pitch that resulted in Louisville closer Michael McAvene saying “That’s Terrible” led to an ejection for unsportsmanlike conduct, and four-game suspension, for the pitcher. The ejection did not face the offense, as McAvene said a totally normal statement under the circumstances.
To make matters better, ESPN's broadcast cut out during the incident.
Game Six- Cardinals dominate Redbirds at the plate, on the mound
Illinois State dominated Louisville Saturday night. The Cardinals returned the favor, forcing a Game seven. The Cardinals, playing as the road team, won 11-2.
Luke Smith started for the Cardinals in game two and pitched a gem. It was arguably his best outing in 2019. In 8.1 innings, Smith allowed just two runs on three hits and three walks, striking out seven batters in 129 pitches. He received the win, and rightly so.
Louisville opened scoring in the top of the second. Campbell hit a deep sacrifice fly to right, and sent freshman phenom Binelas home. Then, Justin Lavey drove in another run on a single through the left side of the infield.
Nick Zouras hit a sac fly to right center in the bottom of the inning.
Jake Snider hit an absolute moonshot to right in the top of the fourth. The ball cleared the wall easily, and went through the trees. Lucas Dunn received a gift from Aeilts in right. Aeilts couldn’t hang onto a softly hit ball down the line, and Dunn plated a two-run triple.
Louisville had a big eighth inning. Oriente hit a single through the left side, plating Snider. Then, Campbell singled to short right-center field, scoring Oriente from second. Zach Britton came on for a pinch-hit RBI single, replacing Lucas Dunn. Fitzgerald sacrificed a fly ball, tacking on another run. Snider added two more on a double to center.
With 114 innings, Smith entered the ninth inning. Joe Aeilts tripled to lead off the inning. Smith balked, scoring Aeilts. He struck the next batter out, and was pulled from the game.
Game seven, the championship game, has been scheduled for 1pm tomorrow. Due to TV obligations, the start could change. Regardless, it will determine who survives, and will face off in the Super Regional for a shot at the College World Series.
--By Mike Gilpatrick
--Photo by Jared Anderson
Louisville is in a tough position. The Cardinals dropped regional game four.
Illinois State, ranked No. 26 in the college baseball RPI, defeated the Louisville Cardinals 4-2 in an impressive pitching performance. Their starter, Matt Walker, threw a 127-pitch complete game.
Walker surrendered just two runs, both earned, on six hits and two walks. He struck out seven Louisville hitters. He received the win, and his record moved to 5-8.
Louisville’s ace, Reid Detmers, started the game for the Cardinals. He only threw seven innings, and gave up four runs, all earned, on three hits and three walks. It was better than his last start, but was not as good as how he had pitched earlier this season. Detmers still struck out 11 batters. He also received the loss.
Detmers allowed his first run in the bottom of the fourth (Louisville was the road team due to the tournament). Joe Aeilts hit a double down the line in left to score Jordan Libman.
The Cardinals led briefly. In the sixth, Tyler Fitzgerald plated Justin Lavey on an RBI groundout to third. Then, Logan Wyatt drove Lucas Dunn in on a first-pitch single to John Rave.
Illinois State gained their lead back in the bottom half of the inning. Rave went home after Aeilts hit into a fielder’s choice. Jeremy Gailes drove in two runs on an RBI down the left field line to Jake Snider.
The Cardinals went down in order in the top of the ninth. Walker forced three consecutive groundouts to end the game.
Dan McDonnell and Co. now have a tough task ahead of them: winning three games in less than two days to survive. At noon, the Cardinals will rematch with Indiana (Louisville won 8-7 in 12 innings on May 14th in Bloomington). Then, if they survive, Louisville will face off against Illinois State at 6 pm. If Louisville wins that game, they will play one more time on Monday.
--By Mike Gilpatrick
--Photo by Jared Anderson
The Louisville Cardinals entered Friday’s regional opener 7-0 in tourney game ones at home. They left the park 8-0.
In typical fashion, Dan McDonnell and Co. started off slowly, but finished strong; this time defeating Illinois Chicago 5-3. Fans packed the stands, and most stuck around for all nine innings. Logan Wyatt also moved up to No. five in career walks.
Illinois-Chicago led off the first two innings with solo-shot home runs. First, Derrick Patrick homered to dead center field on the fourth pitch of the game. In the second, catcher Joshua Figueroa blasted a third-pitch home run to center.
The Flames scored one more run, which was unearned, on a fielder’s choice.
After that, starting pitcher Nick Bennett settled down nicely. He retired the next 11 batters in order, before giving up a walk and single to end his streak. Bennett finished with 5.2 innings pitched, and gave up just two home runs on four hits and two walks, while striking out six. His earned run average lowered from 4.64 to 4.52.
Louisville tied the game in the bottom of the second. With one out, Danny Oriente blasted a massive home run to the batter’s eye, and drove home Logan Wyatt. Then, Zach Britton scored on an error.
The Cardinals took the lead in the third. Alex Binelas hit a perfect bunt single down the third-base line, which was mis-handled by backup catcher Ryan Hampe. Hampe missed the first baseman, allowing Tyler Fitzgerald to reach home plate.
Oriente added an insurance run in the fifth, after hitting a sacrifice fly to center.
Illinois-Chicago made it interesting in the ninth. With Michael Kirian one the mound, the Flames put runners in scoring position with no outs. Dan McDonnell substituted for Michael McAvene. McAvene struck out the side.
Bennett received the win, Jacob Key the loss, and Michael McAvene the save.
The Cardinals will play the Illinois State Redbirds Saturday at 4 (Illinois State defeated Indiana in the first game of the regional). If Louisville wins, they will play in the regional final for an opportunity to host a super-regional.
--Photos by Jared Anderson
By Jason Wyrick
Photo by Wade Morgen
I will never forget one moment I shared with a scout during the spring of 2016. I have wanted to become a Major League amateur scout for a long time and during my time at Louisville, I had plenty of opportunities to mingle with some and make connections. I had many encounters and side conversations with these scouts, but one in particular sticks out with me on this Wednesday. So, today, I would like to take you through a pair of sentences one scout shared with me a mere three years ago.
The conversations all start the same way. “Are you here to see [insert obvious scouting candidate here]?” Normally, the response is vague and just throws up a smoke screen.
“I am here to see everyone.”
At the time, I thought that was a cop out response or maybe just a way to get me to stop talking and let them do their job. That’s fine, not everyone is terribly friendly to someone who is a prospective candidate to eventually take their job. I understood that, but most of them were good to me anyway.
Now, however, I am more wise and I understand that “cop out” isn’t really one at all. It’s a scout doing his job well by being thorough. That is how we have arrived at the aforementioned moment between myself and a scout.
The names in question were Corey Ray and Zack Burdi. Everyone knew that Ray had true five tool potential and the younger of the Burdi brothers had electric, lights-out stuff as a closer when lighting up the radar gun with triple digits. On this day, I spoke with a gentleman with a polo shirt on and a small combover to mask his thinning hair. He looked the part of someone who had been there before, someone who was shrewd with his notes and decisive in his reports.
“I was here to see Burdi, but I actually really like your catcher. I think he is the best player you guys have in the draft this year.”
I won’t lie, I was a little surprised. Check that. Very surprised. I knew Will Smith was pretty good and flashed some plus tools, but better than Corey Ray? The same Corey Ray that was discussed in conversations to go first overall in the whole draft?
“Really?” I responded, incredulous. I thought there was no way the kid from East Louisville’s Kentucky Country Day School who never caught before being converted into one at Louisville would be the best draft prospect on that team. He was the 4th ranked righty pitcher in Kentucky in his class, but the Louisville staff wanted him to catch instead. Three years later, a scout was drooling over him in that role.
“I will be over the moon if he falls to us. I’m pushing hard for him.”
That scout belonged to the Los Angeles Dodgers organization and Will Smith did indeed fall to their selection at 32nd overall, part of the compensatory first round. The third catcher off the board that day (Zack Collins out of Miami and Matt Thaiss from Virginia who isn’t even a catcher anymore), Smith became the first of the trio drafted in the first round to reach the Major Leagues, doing so last night. Turns out Louisville coach Dan McDonnell has an eye for talent himself. As if we didn’t already know.
Dodgers starting catcher Austin Barnes exited Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates with an injury, a groin strain that landed him on the 10-day injured list. 48 hours, a rushed flight out west and a lot of nerves later, Louisville’s “Fresh Prince” made his big league debut.
He walked out to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. When your name is Will Smith and you’re playing in Los Angeles, do you really have a choice? As it turns out, no. Teammates reportedly chose the song for him because he didn’t have time to get back with the stadium disc jockey amidst the whirlwind of getting the call.
Facing New York Mets veteran southpaw Steven Matz, Smith stepped into the box looking poised and collected. Down in the count, he roped a line drive just out of reach of the shortstop for a single, his first hit in the bigs. He went on to also collect a double en route to a 2-4 performance, also throwing out a baserunner stealing on the night.
One game into his Major League career, Will Smith has just continued to show why he was one of the organization’s top prospects. It’s a small sample size, sure, but he has continually proven at every level of the minors why that scout was so confident in him.
Smith is essentially on a 10-day trial run with the big league club and, in nine days, will probably find his way back on a flight to Oklahoma City. He was brought up after all because Austin Barnes went on the injured list. However, with the struggles Dodgers catchers have had at the plate recently and how hot Smith was in AAA, he is doing the best he can to seize this opportunity and force his way into the current plans at the Major League level.
By Jason Wyrick
Photo by Gary Wolf
It is no surprise that being a professional two-way player is tough. Not only is it a grind to reach the high levels of play of a position player or a pitcher, these guys have to do it twice. Oh, did I mention how grueling that work regimen is to be a good hitter and pitcher? How taxing that is on their bodies? Consider this my declaration of the obvious: it is next to impossible.
It is indubitably difficult to overstate how challenging such an endeavor really is. I could go on and on just trying to explain it, but I won’t. What I will do, though, is help you understand for yourself.
First, please bear with me. I will get to Brendan in due time, but it is important to understand what process he is undertaking first.
I want you to think of all the players you have ever heard of playing two ways in the big leagues. I’m talking guys that play a position or DH in their off days pitching, not pitchers who rake (sorry Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard) or hitters who routinely will take the mound in relief. Take a moment to think. I’ll wait.
I am sure most of you came up with two names in particular: Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani. Quite frankly, those two are the only ones to do it regularly and at a superstar level in the history of the league. Sure, there have been a few other failed two-way experiments here and there. A guy will try it to give himself versatility to a ball club, maybe he was afforded an opportunity to pitch in a pinch and actually did well or maybe he was even a pitcher who hit the ball so well he was asked to hit even on days he wasn’t pitching. But it’s rare.
Off the top of my head, I can think of only three or four guys who actually tried playing two ways at the professional level, let alone the Major League level. Outside Ohtani, none of them exactly did it well.
Christian Bethancourt is a prime example. He was a catcher/reliever who spent time with the Atlanta Braves and San Diego Padres before leaving the US and signing in the KBO League in Korea. In his Major League career, Bethancourt hit for a .222 average and threw for a 10.13 ERA. These are not exactly stellar numbers for either and that in itself is why he tried playing two-ways to begin with: to give himself maximum versatility in a game where he could and would be sent down if he didn’t perform.
Matt Davidson has a significantly smaller body of work in the bigs. While with the Chicago White Sox in 2018, the third baseman asked to pitch when the bullpen was depleted and the Sox were not contending to win the game. He came in and pitched the 9th inning without surrendering a run. This made him confident that he could actually play both ways, so he picked up pitching full time. He would go on to throw three full innings in the Majors in 2018, not allowing a single earned run. However, with a .228 average in 2018, he opened 2019 in AAA with the Texas Rangers organization. He is another example of a guy who tried it because his other options weren’t panning out as well as planned.
Enter Brendan McKay.
You know his name already, so he needs no introduction.
Here is one anyway.
Brendan McKay is more than just a guy who appeared on a baseball card with me. Wait, is that not how this works?
All joking aside, Brendan is the best athlete to ever suit up for the Louisville Cardinals.
Before you jump down my throat with “but what about” responses of Teddy B, Lamar, Asia Durr, Donovan, Kelsi Worrell, Johnny U, Mallory Comerford and others, hear me out.
Brendan was the ace of the Louisville pitching staff for two seasons. This is a staff that in that time produced five starters and five relievers who were all drafted – seven of those 10 in the top 10 rounds and all in the top 17 of the 40 round draft.
He also bat cleanup as the DH or at first base for even longer in a lineup that produced 12 draft picks over that time.
Brendan was the first player to win the John Olerud Award for two-way college players more than once. Not satisfied with that, he went out and won it a third time too, one for each year he played at Louisville. Oh, and he won the Dick Howser Trophy for college player of the year and the Golden Spikes Award for amateur player of the year too. Brendan was in a star-studded Louisville dugout and still managed to shine the brightest as both a pitcher and a hitter.
He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017 and since the end of the Louisville run in the 2017 College World Series, has been playing two-ways in the Rays’ organization.
For the entirety of his professional career, the Rays organization has been developing him as a two-way player. That is what sets him apart from guys like Matt Davidson and Christian Bethancourt who picked up pitching when they were already there.
He opened his career with the Hudson Valley Renegades, a short season team who plays the back half of the summer and is mainly comprised of drafted rookies who just finished their final seasons of amateur baseball. He hit a solid .232 in his 36 games there, but he pitched to a 1.80 ERA in six starts.
He opened 2018 with Class A Bowling Green and lasted all of a month hitting .254 and allowing a 1.09 ERA before being promoted to Advanced A Charlotte. Playing for the Stone Crabs, Brendan hit .210 and had a 3.21 ERA before a lingering oblique issue cost him a month in the middle of the summer and also ended his season prematurely in August.
It wasn’t the full opening season he or the Rays were hoping for, but his numbers still spoke what baseball circles already knew very well: Brendan McKay is good at baseball.
After taking the offseason to get healthy again, he opened 2019 with the AA Montgomery Biscuits. The organization decided to end his career playing first base, limiting his hitting to DH duties only beginning this season in what was the first domino to fall in the story of Brendan’s rise through the minor league ranks.
From the outset, his pitching has far surpassed his hitting. This isn’t to say he was ever a bad hitter at all, he held his own just fine for the most part. What this does not say about his hitting it does say about his pitching: he is dominant, unhittable, masterful, filthy. Pick a superlative, any will work.
That trend has been epitomized this season in Montgomery. He slashed a measly .167/.256/.192 at the plate, but on the mound, he was better than ever. He held hitters to a .172 average and kept a 1.30 ERA through eight starts. This was easily enough to show he was overmatching hitters at the level and, if it was not painfully obvious at the other three levels, it sure was in AA: the Rays wanted to hold him down so that his bat could progress to its own level high enough to warrant a promotion. However, at some point, an organization must acknowledge that it is wasting a pitcher’s bullets at a level by holding them down. This is true for both pitchers who are blocked at the next level by other pitchers or in Brendan’s case by waiting to develop his bat. For Brendan McKay and the Rays, that moment came yesterday. Of course his bat was lagging behind, but when you have a guy dealing at the level that he has this season, that player will force the organization’s hand.
Forcing the Rays’ hand is exactly what he did. He was promoted to the AAA Durham Bulls last Thursday night despite his bat woes. Brendan’s pitching has carried him this far and there is no reason to doubt that he will continue to bring the lights-out stuff that made him a star at Louisville, draft day and every level of the minors that he has been through to this point. He will be in the rotation in AAA, and this will be a true test for him. AAA is comprised of two types of players: prospects on their way to the Majors and former big leaguers making their way back. He is going to face multiple hitters in every start that have been to the Show and know how to attack pitchers. He will probably get some opportunities to DH still because the Rays still want him to find his way as a hitter, let me be perfectly clear. The two-way experiment and development of Brendan McKay is not over and there is no reason to believe it will be anytime soon. However, when one of the two skill sets is so vastly superior to the other, an organization has to make a decision on the importance of the development of the secondary skill.
Thankfully for Brendan and the Rays, it is much easier to find your way as a hitter than as a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues. Limiting him to a designated hitter role in his pitching off days has also streamlined his development as a hitter, so this decision to promote him to Durham undeterred by his bat vicissitudes was made easier in that respect.
Despite being a truly unique player being developed two ways, McKay’s situation is not much different than that of many other minor leaguers being promoted with holes in their games. Position players and relievers regularly get promoted with a deficiency that is simply overshadowed by how good they are in another aspect of the game. For example, a defensive specialist that has issues hitting, a slugger that is a liability in the field or a reliever that throws triple digits but has problems with command all come to mind. They regularly get thrown into the fire, organization and player knowing full well that the prospect’s plus tools have bought them plenty of time to figure it out everywhere else.
Starting pitchers, however, are developed differently. They generally have the most complete and refined game by the time they make it to the big leagues, and Brendan has shown that he has mastered the AA level with flying colors as a starter on the hill. Think about him this way: he has done the hard part (pitching) well. Now, as a designated hitter only, he is like any other prospect still finding their way at the plate, except he isn’t just a defensive specialist. He is well on his way to cementing his future as a future Major League ace.
Even with his bat lagging behind, this promotion does not necessarily signal an inevitable end to his two-way development in the future. His pitching prowess was simply too great to waste in Montgomery anymore. His plus-plus pitching is set to face another new challenge in Durham at the AAA level. AA is the last real development stage in a minor leaguer’s stops, whereas AAA is the closest test to Major League readiness. Even being thrown into the fire to figure it out and find his way as a hitter, if he can continue this blistering pace and meteoric rise in the rotation, he will find himself in Tampa Bay sooner rather than later, suiting up for Kevin Cash’s Rays. In the meantime however, he will take his talents to the AAA mound, his first start coming tomorrow night in Durham against the Louisville Bats.
Jason Wyrick is a co-owner and contributor to River City Cards. He can be followed on Twitter @Steagles1.
RCC would also like to thank Gary Wolf for his photo contribution to our site.