Louisville's Brendan McKay (Aaron Fitt)

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Golden Spikes Spotlight: Brendan McKay

DURHAM, N.C. — Impact two-way freshmen are so rare in college baseball that comparisons are inevitable when a great one comes along. Just nine weeks into his collegiate career, Louisville’s Brendan McKay is already the best two-way player in the country. He earned the two-way spot on D1Baseball’s midseason All-America team last week, and few players in the country have been more valuable than McKay, who serves as Louisville’s Saturday starter and cleanup hitter. In 47 innings off the mound, McKay is 5-1, 1.91 with 63 strikeouts and 14 walks. And in 98 at-bats, he is hitting .306/.452/.408 with 17 RBIs and more walks (25) than strikeouts (17).

The last player to make a two-way splash like this as a freshman in the ACC was Virginia’s Danny Hultzen, who went 9-1, 2.17 off the mound and hit .327/.410/.422 in 2009. Not only are McKay’s numbers similar to Hultzen’s; his game is also similar to Hultzen’s game as a freshman. Like Hultzen in 2009, McKay is a lefthander with easy an easy delivery and uncommon command of an 88-91 fastball that bumps 92 in a starting role. McKay’s 77-80 power curveball is a true hammer and serves as his go-to secondary pitch; Hultzen relied more on his advanced changeup and solid slider.

Like Hultzen did as a freshman, McKay also plays first base and hits in the heart of the lineup. They have similar patient, all-fields approaches and sweet lefthanded swings. Neither is a masher, but both hit for average and have a knack for getting on base and driving in runs.

Louisville's Brendan McKay (Aaron Fitt)Louisville’s Brendan McKay (Aaron Fitt)

McKay was a marquee recruit coming out of high school in Beaver Falls, Pa., and he ranked as the No. 166 prospect for the 2014 draft according to Baseball America. But he said he never expected to have this kind of two-way role as a freshman.

“Definitely not,” McKay said. “I thought maybe I’d get a couple of pinch-hit at-bats, maybe a couple DH opportunities here or there — probably not in the 4-hole or 5-hole, but you have to take it in stride and just assume the position and make quality at-bats.”

Louisville coach Dan McDonnell never saw Hultzen, but he compares McKay’s two-way impact to that of former Ole Miss star Stephen Head, whom McDonnell coached during his days as an assistant with the Rebels. Head was another first baseman and lefthanded pitcher who posted a 1.40 ERA and hit .337 as a freshman in 2003. The 6-foot-2, 203-pound McKay has a similar build, too.

“I got to coach Stephen Head, so for me, I’ve been calling him Stephen Head all year,” McDonnell said. “Of course, Stephen put his arm around me after Ole Miss played us (in March) and he laughed and said, ‘Coach, this guy throws a lot harder than I ever did.’ He closed against Ole Miss, I think he was like 92-94, because he was closing, and I laughed because Stephen was so humble. But he’s just like that, a two-way player. Stephen might have showed a little more power as a freshman, where Brendan shows a little more plate discipline and uses the whole field. You saw him: It’s a pretty polished hitter and a pretty polished pitcher. But like all young pitchers, he’s got to get a little bit better out of the stretch, and experience, you hope, will help him.”

McDonnell said McKay’s humility is another way he is similar to Head. Despite his status as an elite prospect coming out of high school, McKay arrived at Louisville without any airs.

“He loved playing for his high school, he played for his Legion team up there just north of Pittsburgh. He was not that showcase-type scene kid, it wasn’t all about ‘me,’ ” McDonnell said. “When you talked to his coaches, they just always talked about how much he loved his teammates, how much he loved playing for his home town, just some really good qualities. Today’s high-profile baseball player coming out is usually coming with all these rankings and accolades, but he’s never acted like a privileged one, even though he was drafted. And we didn’t hand it to him, either. We made him earn it.”

McKay started the year coming out of the bullpen and pinch-hitting, but it quickly became apparent that he was polished enough in both areas to take on a larger role. When veteran Anthony Kidston struggled, McKay took over a starting job and stabilized the weekend rotation, pitching on Saturday behind ace Kyle Funkhouser.

Louisville's Brendan McKay (Aaron Fitt)Louisville’s Brendan McKay (Aaron Fitt)

This week at Duke, McKay allowed the first two batters of the game to reach via a single and a walk, leading to a run after a pair of sacrifices. But then he clamped down, retiring 17 of the next 18 hitters until the Blue Devils pushed across an unearned run in the sixth. Unlike many young pitchers with wipeout breaking balls, McKay established his fastball early and pitched off it — a sign of his impressive maturity. And six of his eight strikeouts came on fastballs, all of them swinging. You very rarely see so many swing-throughs on 88-91 fastballs, but McKay’s heater plays up because of his angle and command.

“It’s got some pretty good down angle on it with his slot,” Louisville pitching coach Roger Williams said. “I think the ball jumps on people a little more than they expect. I think the big key with him is it’s a pretty good fastball but he commands it very well. I think that also makes a difference for him.”

Williams said McKay also has decent feel for his changeup, which has some fade to it and is typically down in the zone, but he did not have to throw it at all during his seven strong innings against Duke. His fastball and curveball were good enough that he the third weapon could remain holstered.

“He’s a talented kid, unflappable, has shown really good composure. He has good feel for all three pitches. Didn’t really need to go to the changuep today, but he competes, so he’s definitely been a huge asset for us as a pitcher and a hitter, no doubt,” Williams said. “He found the feel for the breaking ball in the middle of the game. He was able to start throwing it a little better and throwing it for strikes more. For a young guy to show the poise and the mound presence that he’s shown, and be able to have the command that he’s had, be able to throw the fastball to both sides of the plate, he’s really gotten off to a nice start to his career. Obviously we couldn’t be more pleased.”

Louisville's Brendan McKay (Aaron Fitt)Louisville’s Brendan McKay (Aaron Fitt)

McKay also had a nice weekend at the plate. On Friday, he led off the seventh inning with a walk that led to the game’s only run in Louisville’s 1-0 win. Saturday, he doubled down the left-field line in his first at-bat, singled through the right side in his second at-bat and walked in his third at-bat. Sunday he went 2-for-2 with two more walks, a double and three RBIs to help Louisville win the rubber game.

“There’s not a lot of movement (in his setup),” McDonnell said. “And because you’re quiet, there’s great recognition. And every hitter’s going to chase a breaking ball from time to time … You see his composure at the plate, he doesn’t swing out of the zone much, has a very good eye. I call it a pro approach. I think the pro guys, obviously now the pitching’s ahead, but I’m hoping by his junior year it becomes a tough decision.”

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