“From the time we pulled up to our hotel, there were people outside asking me for autographs,” said McKay, the best college player in the country. “Everywhere you go, there are people wanting autographs, pictures, just anything you could ever want.”
Fresh off the Major League Baseball draft, in which he was selected No. 4 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays, McKay went to dinner Thursday in Omaha with the Dick Howser Trophy committee and tended to media and practice obligations Friday and Saturday.
He didn’t say it, but Louisville coach Dan McDonnell did. McKay had every reason to feel worn out when he took the mound for the most important game of his burgeoning career.
“When he was answering that question,” McDonnell said, “I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m tired.'”
The reality for McKay, in line this summer to receive the largest signing bonus under the MLB’s current collective bargaining agreement, is that this is not set to slow down. His life is only going to get crazier as he marches toward the big leagues.
“It’s not going to stop,” he said.
At least McKay understands — or seems to understand — that he fits into a category different from other prospects.
It’s a category that’s different from Vanderbilt pitcher Kyle Wright, the No. 5 pick of the Braves last week who got $7 million to top Kris Bryant’s record bonus from 2013 awarded by the Cubs. And different from Royce Lewis, the first pick whom the Twins have agreed to pay $6.725 million to sign.
McKay, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound, hard-throwing, power-hitting left-hander, wants to pitch and hit professionally. He said he believes he can do it.
“I think it can open up a new experience for baseball, having two guys in one,” McKay said Sunday after earning the victory for his five innings of work at TD Ameritrade Park.
“You can carry a reliever or starter on the mound and then you also have a bat in the lineup — where if you can figure out how to handle your body and not get worn down and stay healthy and everything — it could help baseball in a great way.”
McDonnell thinks he can do it, too.
“I think the Rays are going to look really smart,” the coach said.
Louisville teammates think he can do it.
“When I think of Brendan McKay,” junior shortstop Devin Hairston said, “I think of one word and that’s ‘pure.’ He understands how to move in the batter’s box. He understands how to handle his emotions. He’s such a low-maintenance athlete that he’s going to be able to excel at the next level.”
Right now is probably a good time to mention that nobody has done in major league baseball what McKay wants to do.
Well, nobody since Babe Ruth.
History is littered with guys who have tried and failed or experienced minimal success.
The Padres want Christian Bethancourt, who has played catcher and in the outfield, to make it as a relief pitcher this year. So far, his ERA is 14.73. Is McKay different? Three times in three seasons at Louisville he was named the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year. Olerud, who hit .464 with 23 homers and finished 15-0 on the mound at Washington State in 1988, jumped directly to the majors and never pitched in 17 professional seasons.
If McKay breaks through and performs both ways with success, the Olerud award ought to be renamed for him.
This year, he joined Greg Swindell of Texas and Oklahoma State’s Robin Ventura as the only players ever to earn first-team All-America honors three times from Baseball America. McKay is a unique talent, no doubt.
He’s 11-3 with a 2.56 ERA this year and a nation-leading 146 strikeouts in 109 innings. He’s hitting .340 with 17 homers, 56 RBIs and a .459 on-base percentage.
McKay did hit four home runs, though, in an April game against Eastern Kentucky that provides little indication of his potential in the American League East. Against ACC pitching, he dipped to .293 with three homers and 12 RBIs. In the NCAA postseason — a small sample of six games — he’s 4-for-25 (.160) with no homers and four RBIs.
He swung well on Sunday despite his 1-for-5 line, singling sharply to left field in his first at-bat to ignite a five-run rally. On the mound, McKay ran into trouble in the sixth inning, saved by the perfect relief of Sam Bordner.
By no means does this performance constitute a referendum on his ability to play both ways as a pro.
He’s not alone, as others, including Japanese sensation Shohei Otani and the No. 2 overall pick of the Reds, Hunter Greene, also try to be two-way players. But for as long as he tries to follow in Babe Ruth’s footsteps, McKay can expect to come under a scrutiny that makes his stay in Omaha feel like a beach vacation.