When Craig Albernaz learned he would inherit Brendan McKay at Class A Short Season Hudson Valley for his first professional season, the manager wasn't sure what to think.
After all, McKay was a well-decorated two-way phenom at the University of Louisville, earning the Golden Spikes Award as the best player in college baseball. He wasn't sure what his attitude would be or if he would live up to his lofty billing.
McKay immediately dispelled any of Albernaz's trepidations, and he's continued to impress as both moved up to Class A Bowling Green this season.
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"I was impressed with him last year … especially with all the hype and notoriety that came with him," the Hot Rods manager said. "He had all those accolades from college, well-earned and deserved, and he came in as a hard worker, great teammate, great clubhouse guy, and it's more of the same this year. He fits in well, he brings it every day. Especially with doing what he does playing both sides of the ball, you have to work hard. And that's been something I've been impressed with from day one."
McKay dazzled on the mound in Friday's 5-3, 12-inning win over Burlington as he tossed 4 2/3 hitless innings and tied his career high with nine strikeouts. He fired a season-high 85 pitches, throwing 56 for strikes, and issued one walk, just his second of the season.
"He just pounds the zone with his fastball. He spins it for strikes, he has a good breaking ball and has a good changeup," Albernaz said. "That's one thing with him, he just continues to pound the zone and puts the hitters in swing mode, and then he can expand the zone with other breaking stuff and off-speed stuff."
The 2017 fourth overall pick was drafted as a two-way player and made six starts totaling 20 innings for Hudson Valley in his first professional season. McKay accrued more playing time as a hitter, assembling a .232/.349/.376 slash line in the New York-Penn League.
He opened this year scorching hot at the dish, collecting seven hits in his first four games. But the quick start was followed by a 3-for-25 stretch over his next nine games. The University of Louisville product has picked it up lately, as he's riding a three-game hitting streak.
On the mound, McKay (1-0) has been unruffled, allowing one run and five hits over his last three starts. The southpaw set his career high with nine punchouts and hurled a season-high five innings in his last start against Lake County on April 28. Friday's outing lowered his ERA to 1.45 for the season.
The Rays organization has been gradually loosening his leash on the mound, but Albernaz said he's ecstatic with his progress.
"We're gradually building him up," the manager said, "because the end game is to get him to the big leagues on both sides of the ball. So with pitching, we're just making sure he's getting his work in and getting the proper rest and building up his innings and his pitch count gradually.
"Next outing, he'll go a little more than this outing and so on, until he's built up like a normal pitcher."
The Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, native recorded his only blemish on the second batter he faced Friday, walking Angels No. 5 prospect Brandon Marsh, but cruised from there. He struck out five consecutive batters between the third and fourth and was hampered by a pair of errors in the fifth before being yanked.
"He had a few runners on base today and he just keeps his composure," Albernaz said. "When runners get in scoring position or a high-leverage situation, you don't even know he's flustered. He just goes out and attacks hitters."
Riley O'Brien kept the Hot Rods' no-hitter alive by fanning six over three innings. But things quickly got hairy for Bowling Green in the eighth after O'Brien issued a pair of walks before being replaced by Hunter Schryver. An error and a walk loaded the bases, and the Bees plated a run after Spencer Griffin reached on another miscue.
O'Brien has twice gone three innings without yielding a hit this season.
"Riley O'Brien has been great for us all year," Albernaz said. "He can give us length and he had some really good stuff also. He pounded the zone and he picked up right after McKay. That's one thing, if you have a good starter who can give you a strong five innings, four and change … when he pounds the zone, it affects the reliever coming and he can follow in and get comfortable."
The no-hit bid ended when Keinner Pina singled to center on Schryver's first pitch of the ninth.
Carl Chester's sacrifice fly put the Hot Rods up, 2-1, in the 11th and the Bees swiftly answered with Franklin Torres' RBI double. Bowling Green broke it open in the following frame, with Zacrey Law plating Taylor Walls with a single and Jim Haley scoring Law with a sacrifice fly.
Tyler Zombro (3-0) got the win, yielding a pair of unearned runs on two hits and a walk with three strikeouts in two innings.
The reliever has been Albernaz's go-to guy in extra innings.
"I feel bad, but I don't," Albernaz quipped about his usage. "He keeps his composure and makes pitches."