Louisville’s Brendan McKay, the ACC Freshman of the Year, already has a good feel for Durham Bulls Athletic Park, both on the mound and at the plate.
The Cardinals, top-seeded in the ACC Baseball Championship this week, got an early look at the DBAP during their ACC series against Duke in April. McKay was the starting pitcher in the second game and first base in the other two as the Cards won the series.
The Cardinals, a record 25-5 in their first ACC season, open tournament play 7 p.m. Wednesday against North Carolina. McKay said he is eager to get started: “It should be a great atmosphere, and it should be fun.”
Some say McKay is the best two-way player in the nation. The Darlington, Pa., native was named to the 30-player watch list for the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award, given to the nation’s best amateur player.
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“He may not be the Golden Spikes (winner) this year, but he’ll be the Golden Spikes before he leaves,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “He’s that good.”
When asked if he’s a better pitcher or better position player and hitter, McKay said, “I think everybody has their own opinion.”
And his opinion? “I like it both,” McKay said. “Love it.”
The 6-foot-2, 203-pound left-hander has an 8-2 pitching record with a tidy 1.64 earned-run average – second-best in the ACC – and a league-leading 100 strikeouts in 77 innings. Before becoming a starter in March, he pitched 12 scoreless innings in relief, notching four saves in seven games while fanning 21.
McKay isn’t a big slugger, but he is a tough out, hitting .318 in his first college season. His .440 on-base percentage leads the Cardinals.
“I’ve got to think McKay is as good a freshman as I’ve seen in the conference in a long while, in the ways he can contribute,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett said.
It’s easy to compare McKay with former Virginia standout Danny Hultzen, who also blazed his way into the ACC. Also a lefty, Hultzen was 9-1 as a freshman in 2009 while also playing first base and batting .327.
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell prefers another comparison. As an assistant coach at Ole Miss, he worked with former Rebels All-American Stephen Head, another southpaw/first baseman who hit .336 as a freshman in 2003.
“Brendan is having a special year, and you need contributions from your freshman class,” said McDonnell, the ACC Coach of the Year. “The way he’s playing has helped elevate our team. He has poise. He doesn’t get too high or too low. He’s confident in his ability and trusts his stuff.”
Early in the season, McKay was used as a designated hitter and out of the bullpen, the role he said he expected as a freshman coming into a program that has produced College World Series teams the past two seasons.
“I wasn’t playing as much, DH’ing here and there, playing a little at first, trying to get into the swing of things,” he said. “After that I got into the lineup every day and got a little more confident every day, knowing I can play at this level.”
Against Duke on April 11, McKay allowed four hits and one earned run over seven innings in a 2-1 loss, his first college defeat. The next day, he reached base four times and drove in three runs with a single and double as the Cards rolled 11-1.
McKay’s best outing was against Florida State, then ranked seventh nationally. He held the Seminoles hitless before leaving with one out in the seventh as the Cards won 7-0.
“I think that was my best, giving up no hits to a top 10 team,” McKay said. “That’s a pretty great feeling.”
McKay was beaten in his last start Friday against N.C. State, giving up one earned run in six innings and striking out 12 in a 3-2 loss at Doak Field. The Cards rebounded to win the third game 8-5, picking up their 25th ACC win.
In addition to receiving the ACC freshman award, McKay was one of five Cardinals named first-team All-ACC.
“Our challenge for him this season was, ‘Don’t think you have to do too much, and let your teammates help you,’” McDonnell said. “He’s done that all year.”
Pack, Heels honored
N.C. State’s Brian Brown and UNC’s J.B. Bukauskas joined Brendan McKay on the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
Brown went 6-3 and led the Pack with a 1.87 ERA. Bukauskas went 4-3 with a 4.13 while stepping into UNC’s weekend rotation.
N.C. State catcher Andrew Knizner, first baseman Preston Palmeiro and outfielder Jake Fincher joined UNC pitcher Zac Gallen on the All-ACC second team.
Two Tar Heels made the third team. Outfielder Skye Bolt and pitcher Benton Moss joined N.C. State second baseman Logan Ratledge.