One year ago this week, the Louisville Cardinals – under the direction of then-10-year head coach Dan McConnell – found themselves sitting in the No. 7 spot in the Perfect Game National College Top 25 Rankings and basically riding a rail to another top-8 national seed in the NCAA Division I Tournament.
They were doing a lot of winning a year ago thanks in no small part to the efforts of elite outfielder Corey Ray, who several weeks before the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft was projected as a certain first-rounder, and more than likely a top-10 pick. The projections were right-on: the Milwaukee Brewers selected Ray with the No. 5 overall pick.
A year later – and under the direction of now 11-year head coach Dan McDonnell – it’s a lot like déjà vu all over again for the Louisville program. The Cards are holding down the No. 2 spot in PG’s latest National College Top 25 Rankings and are being led by terrific two-way standout Brendan McKay who, like Ray, is projected as a very early first-round pick in the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft.
“He was probably one of the best players I’ve ever played with, with the amount of skill that he’s got; the attitude he’s got, the work ethic,” McKay told PG during a recent telephone conversation when asked about Ray. “He just went about things normally, played every game like it was his last, just going out there and giving it his all while trying to help as many as people as he could along the way.”
The parallels between this season and last are obvious but there are differences between Ray and McKay. While Ray was a special talent, McKay is both special and especially unique.
He has been one of the Cardinals’ top hitters since he earned a spot in the everyday lineup as a freshman in 2015, and was also a standout left-handed starting pitcher as a freshman and a sophomore. He’s moved into the role of “ace” – the Friday night starter – in this, his junior season.
After Louisville’s crazy 11-7 loss to in-state rival and No. 13-ranked Kentucky in Lexington Tuesday night, the Cardinals stood 31-5 overall and 8-4 on the road, with the other three losses coming at Cincinnati, at N.C. State and at No. 14 Virginia.
McKay, PG’s National College Midseason Player of the Year, is 5-2 with a 1.19 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 53 innings pitched, and is slashing .398/.523/.673 with seven home runs and 28 RBI and 32 runs at the plate. He has already been named the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Pitcher of the Week three times heading into this weekend’s home ACC series against Duke.
The Cardinals’ loss to the Wildcats came on the heels of a three-game ACC sweep of Georgia Tech in Atlanta over the Easter holiday weekend, a result that left them in first-place in the ACC Atlantic Division with a 15-3 record, one game ahead of No. 4 Clemson (14-4).
“I think we’re at a good place right now,” McKay said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in the lineup that are playing well and a lot of guys that are coming off the bench if they need to that are playing well. … We’ve got a lot of guys that have bought into the program and they’re doing a lot of great things and helping the team out in any way.”
In a separate telephone conversation with PG, McDonnell did nothing to downplay the importance of sweeping another top-tier ACC opponent in its home stadium.
“It’s huge, because we know how tough the ACC is, how tough playing on the road is, in general; that’s why the NCAA gives you more quality points when you win on the road,” he said. “And to do it against a program with a lot of pride, a lot of good players (is special). … It wasn’t easy and our guys had to earn it, so I was really pleased with how they fought hard late in those games.”
The Cardinals’ coaching staff talks to the players a lot about playing with toughness – playing with an edge – when the team goes out on the road, and this group has certainly shown the ability to do that with ACC road series wins over North Carolina State, Virginia and now Georgia Tech. From last year through this year, the coaches’ mantra has been “Be Professional” and the players have taken it to heart.
… … …
PERFECT GAME RANKED MCKAY AS THE NO. 475 OVERALL PROSPECT in the national high school class of 2014 (No. 10 Pennsylvania) when he was a senior at Blackhawk High School in Darlington, Pa. He turned in an all-tournament team performance playing with the DBacks Team BC at the 2013 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., the most heavily scouted high school baseball/travel ball tournament in the world.
“I had never done a Perfect Game event like that, so when you see a couple hundred coaches and scouts riding around in golf carts and they’re all (circling) the field while you’re playing, it’s different and even a little weird,” McKay said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people here watching’ and you know if there are a lot of carts at one particular field there must be somebody pretty big over there that everyone wants to watch.”
The San Diego Padres selected McKay in the 34th round of the 2014 MLB June Amateur Draft right out of Blackhawk HS. Initially, he went back-and-forth in his own mind on almost a daily basis trying to decide if he should sign with the Padres and begin his professional career or honor his commitment to Louisville.
“I really was like, one day I’m going to sign and the next day I’m going to go to school and play with a couple of the guys I had already met,” McKay said. “At that point, it was more of just trying to figure it out and put in my mind and in my heart what I wanted to do.” Ultimately school and the Louisville Cardinals program won out.
When McDonnell first began recruiting McKay, he didn’t have to read through a lot of scouting reports or do a huge amount of background work to find upside with the prospect. He looked at McKay and saw an athletic build and a player who was a left-handed pitcher with a left-handed power bat, but what he didn’t realize was just how fine-tuned McKay’s game was both from the mound and at the plate.
“As soon as he got with (Louisville pitching coach Roger) Williams, we saw he had the ability to throw the ball where he wanted and had the confidence to throw the ball to both sides of the plate with his big breaking ball,” McDonnell said. “And then, as a hitter, we saw what great plate discipline he had. It wasn’t just a power bat that swung and missed a lot and hit his share of home runs against bad high school pitching, this guy had a real understanding of the strike zone.”
Those are unique pitching and hitting skills that not all young prospects come out of high school in possession of, and McDonnell was thrilled to get on him on campus. And, right from the get-go, McKay started to perform at an elite level.
As a freshman in 2015, he went 9-3 with a 1.77 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 96 2/3 innings and hit .308 with four home runs, 14 doubles and 34 RBI. After that season – Louisville finished 46-16 after losing 2-of-3 to Cal State Fullerton in the Super Regional – McKay was named the Perfect Game National Freshman of the Year (three other outlets also recognized him their FOY) and a First Team All-American.
He also won the prestigious John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award, an award given out annually to college baseball’s best two-way player and named for former Washington State All-American pitcher and first baseman and 17-year big-league first baseman John Olerud.
McKay spent the summer of 2015 playing for both the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and the Bourne Braves in the Cape Cod League, and slipped seamlessly into his sophomore campaign in the spring of 2016. And instead of tapping the brakes even ever-so-slightly, he hit the gas.
On the mound, McKay went 12-4 with a 2.40 ERA and 128 strikeouts in 17 starts, and at the plate hit .333 with six home runs, 19 doubles and 41 RBI. He was once again a highly decorated All-American and became a repeat winner of the Olerud Award for a Cardinals team that finished 50-14 after dropping both of its Super Regional contests to UC Santa Barbara.
“In one sense, you’re pleasantly surprised and excited with all the freshman success but I’m more impressed with how he’s handled it,” McDonnell said. “There are a lot of players that have great success early in their careers but if you look at a lot of them, there’s a roller-coasterness to their college careers. There’s some highs, there’s some lows, and that’s part of them growing up. I’m more impressed that Brendan has never taken a step backwards.”
McKay returned to the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team in the summer of 2016 where he again performed at a high level both on the mound and at the plate. Because of his extraordinary two-way talents, McKay was named a PG Preseason First Team All-American as a utility player for the second straight year.
“As coaches, we’re like parents,” McDonnell said. “You worry about these kids and you worry about sometimes the expectations, the sense of entitlement, the feeling like, ‘Well, this is not as hard as I thought; I’ve figured this out,’ and they let their guard down a little bit. He’s done just the opposite.”
McKay tries to maintain the same mindset – the same focus – whether he’s pitching or hitting, although the pregame focus is a little different on the days he’s going to pitch. Once the game gets going, the mindset is fast and sure, whether he’s throwing from the mound, playing first base or swinging the bat.
“Everybody asks me, ‘Does it feel better to hit a walk-off or strikeout the side to end the game?’ and they both have the same feel, the same amount of excitement that I’ll see,” McKay said. “It’ll come to somebody is going to choose – he’s going to be a pitcher, he’s going to be a hitter – and I’ll be ready for whatever they want to throw my way.”
THIS IS LOUISVILLE’S THIRD SEASON PLAYING IN THE ACC AND IT WON Atlantic Division championships in each of the two previous seasons (Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, N.C. State, Notre Dame and Wake Forest are also in the Atlantic).
The Cardinals have also advanced to four straight NCAA D-I Super Regionals, and went on to the College World Series in both 2013 and 2014 before being stopped just short each of the last two years. It is the only program in the country that has reached the Super Regionals each of the last four years.
Louisville has hosted four Regional and three Super Regional tournaments during that four-game stretch, and the Cardinals went 12-0 in those four Regionals. But the goal of moving on to Omaha and the CWS wasn’t realized in either 2015 or 2016, so there is a sense of unfinished business with this 2017 team.
“Any time the season ends with not achieving all the goals you set out (to reach), you hope it carries over as some motivation for the following year,” McDonnell said. “Work hard in the summer, be committed in the fall … and definitely think that, ‘Hey, (the previous group) did things the right way, they were successful in many ways; let’s continue to do the same things on and off the field to earn that same success.’”
This year’s collection of Cardinals is certainly doing their part, with several other top prospects like junior corner-infielder Drew Ellis (.365-7-33), junior shortstop Devin Hairston (.336-3-37), senior outfielder Logan Taylor (.317-36 runs) and junior catcher Colby Fitch (.271-7-29) all hitting well to complement McKay.
Freshman left-hander Nick Bennett (3-0, 2.27 ERA) and junior right-hander Kade McClure (4-1, 3.08) have joined McKay most often in the weekend rotation. Sophomore right-hander Riley Thompson, who red-shirted in 2016, was a 37th-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in the 2015 MLB Draft and is also highly regarded.
Those are just a few of the top guys who have been charged with the task of not only keeping McDonnell’s baseball program among the best in the country but also keeping the program on par with several others at the University of Louisville.
Many of Louisville’s athletic programs take a backseat to no others when it comes to competing for NCAA Division I national championships. The men’s basketball and football programs under the direction of well-known head coaches Rick Pitino and Bobby Petrino, respectively, are the scene-stealers and the women’s basketball program under head coach Jeff Waltz is perennial national championship threat. The baseball program is now performing in that same rarefied air.
“Louisville is basically a college town, so any Louisville Cardinals event that’s going on there’s going to be people there bringing all they’ve got and creating the greatest atmosphere,” McKay said. “People want to take pictures after the game, get autographs and want to talk to you just in general. If there are kids there that aspire to be a football player, a basketball player, a soccer player … they’ll want to talk to you and get any input they can from you.”
There are train tracks that run right between the school’s baseball and football stadium and McDonnell likes to point to the train that runs that route and tells his players, “Our job is to be on that train … because that is the train of success at this university and it’s our job as a spring sport to be on that train.”
There is another sporting event holds sway in Louisville, Ky., every May, an annual gathering of around 150,000 horse race fans over at Churchill Downs known as the Kentucky Derby. McDonnell likes to think his baseball team can give Louisville sports fans something to enjoy both before and after the Derby, and he doesn’t mind taking a back seat to a horse race one weekend out of the season if for no other reason than the Cardinals always play a road series that weekend.
The baseball team set a school attendance record in 2016, attracting 101,415 fans for 39 games, an average of about 2,600 per game at 4,000-seat Jim Patterson Stadium. An ACC game against Clemson on April 16 drew 4,950 fans, the largest of the season, and 4,784 turned out for the Super Regional final against UC Santa Barbara.
“I’ve absolutely loved every minute of it since I’ve gotten here,” McKay said. “The two-and-a-half years that I’ve been here so far have just been great, getting to see a couple of record-breaking crowds and just the whole atmosphere of playoff baseball here.”
AT THE BEGINNING OF EACH SEASON, MCDONNELL HAS HIS PLAYERS fill out a “goal sheet” that asks them to list three team goals and three individual goals and then respond to a seventh segment simply called “Why?”, as in why do you play this game, why are you here? McDonnell revealed that only one of the seven goals McKay wrote down this season had anything to do with individual accomplishments.
“His goals are always centered around things like being a better teammate, helping my team win, enjoying this experience with my teammates; doing something that I can’t do on my own,” McDonnell said. “He’s not going out there trying to be the best player in the country because in baseball if you do that, this game will eat you up. He’s just going out there and competing, and he’s competing not just for his team but for his friends.”
It’s become glaringly obvious to everyone close to the Louisville program that McKay is really enjoying everything there is about the college baseball experience. It is the goal of every top college prospect to one day play in the big leagues and get paid handsomely for doing something they’d probably do for free. There’s something to be said about reaching that goal by first playing at least three years of college ball.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” McDonnell said. “You get one chance to be a college student-athlete; it’s so much fun seeing these kids enjoy this, and obviously (McKay) has. It’s not because of the individual awards, it’s because of the teammates and the friendships and the bonds that they’ve created; it’s really neat to see.”
McKay was recently named to the Golden Spikes Award Midseason Watch List, an award that recognizes college baseball’s Player of the Year. All the attention he has received just weeks in front of the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft is creating quite a buzz: Perfect Game projects McKay as the No. 2 overall (college, high school, junior college) prospect in the draft behind two-way prep standout Hunter Greene from Stevenson Ranch, Calif. McKay does his best to block-out all the white noise.
“If you’ve got an advisor or somebody else helping you with the decision about the draft, they’ll give you some input on what they’ve heard,” he said. “Outside of that, you’re more focused on (assembling) that resume’ of work throughout the whole season to put yourself in the best set of circumstances that you can once the June draft comes around. Up until that point, you put in your work and then when the times comes it’s kind of your hands at that point. It’s up to the other people making those decisions.”
There is no doubt in McDonnell’s mind that McKay will be successful at the professional level. He claims – and he should know – that his star left-hander/first baseman has “the perfect baseball demeanor” and utilizes what the veteran coach calls the “3 Cs”: confidence, competitiveness and control.
While expounding further on McKay’s demeanor, McDonnell offered another telling comment that might sound off-hand at first but in fact hits the nail on the head: “I wouldn’t want to play poker against him, let’s put it that way,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of these guys, their emotions are out on their sleeve … whereas with Brendan, you don’t want to play poker with that dude. You have no idea what’s going through his mind.”
The 2017 MLB Draft is approaching fast, but McKay isn’t in any hurry to put his college career behind him just yet. He has been part of Louisville teams that were loaded with talented players like Corey Ray, and has played in a pair of NCAA Super Regionals but he has yet to play a game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, the home of the College World Series. He and his Louisville Cardinals teammates are ready to make that last leap but first they’re going to enjoy every step along the way.
“That’s always the mindset, just taking it one day at a time,” McKay concluded. “It seems like it was just a couple of weeks ago that we were getting our gear to start the season and now we’ve only got (five) weekends left before the conference tournament and then the (NCAA tournament) selection show. It’s kind of flown by unexpectedly.”