ST. PETERSBURG — Catcher Travis d’Arnaud knew as soon as he walked into the Rays clubhouse Saturday. That’s when he saw how cool and calm Brendan McKay — who had strolled in earlier in blue jeans, a T-shirt and a backwards Nike hat, and was sitting casually at his locker — was for a guy a couple of hours from making his big-league debut.
Pitching coach Kyle Snyder said it hit him in the bullpen, standing behind the 23-year-old as he got ready, “watching him warm up, as relaxed as he was, how well he was executing,’’
Manager Kevin Cash saw it when McKay set the first three Texas batters down in order on 11 pitches, staying in control of himself and command of his pitches.
“The way he carried himself, it was kind of unflappable,’’ Cash said. “You would not have thought if you just picked up and turned on the TV or just came to the game that that was his first major-league start.’’
By the end of the afternoon, after McKay worked 5⅓ perfect innings and six pretty awesome ones overall in a 5-2 win over the Rangers, we all knew just how good he was.
“It was fun to watch,’’ Cash said.
McKay said all the right things in the clubhouse afterward.
About taking a deep breath and taking in the moment before starting his warmups. About realizing he had fulfilled a lifelong dream. About how special it was to share the moment with his parents, sisters and other friends and family who came down for the occasion. About the chills he felt from the ovation he got from the announced Trop crowd of 16,655 after he allowed that first hit, one out into the sixth.
But he didn’t say anything about being surprised at how well he did, retiring the first 16 hitters he faced.
That’s because he wasn’t.
As much as McKay is known for his calm demeanor and all-business approach, sometimes to excess, his self-confidence is also a huge factor in his success as he moved quickly from June 2017 collegian and draft pick to June 2018 Class A player to June 2019 big-leaguer.
“I’ve heard that from numerous people today, that it’s just the same game,’’ he said. “To come up here and actually have it be true means it is the same game. You’re just playing against some different names, guys with a lot more experience, in a different place.’’
The combination of McKay’s poise, presence and performance was impressive as he worked both sides of the plate and up and down, changing speeds and mixing pitches. He set the Rangers down in order the first five times, throwing no more than 18 pitches in an inning, 81 pitches total, 55 for strikes.
Pitching with a 3-0 lead for the Rays (47-36) from the second inning on, McKay allowed a broken-bat bloop hit to Danny Santana one out into the sixth, the left-hander’s final inning — no matter what, Cash said. After a bunt for an out, McKay walked Shin-Soo Choo but struck out Delino DeShields to end his dazzling debut.
Want more than just the box score?
Subscribe to our free Rays Report newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
What stood out the most?
Cash noted McKay’s consistency in using his four-pitch repertoire, with his mid-90s fastball and sharp curve most effective.
“Everything looks the same coming out of the delivery and then at the last second coming into the strike zone, it’s a different pitch,’’ Cash said. “He threw competitive pitches the entire game. … Every pitch he made, it looked like there was intent behind it, and it was either direct to make a pitch right there or set up another one, which … from a very young pitcher is impressive.”
D’Arnaud raved about McKay’s preparation. (And also that his command reminded him of Mets ace Jacob deGrom, which is pretty good company.)
“He knew what he needed to do, he knew what kind of pitcher he was when I talked to him about what he liked doing,’’ d’Arnaud said. “He was ready for everything, so it’s pretty cool to see a kid who … baseball IQ-wise is light-years ahead of where I was and where I’m sure a lot of baseball players are.”
And as for the Rangers? Pretty much the total package.
“He’s got good stuff, and he can execute,’’ manager Chris Woodward said. “I thought he did a really good job of having a game plan against us the first time around, and it changed a little bit the second time. … He’s not a real high-energy guy, but you can tell he definitely competes, and he did a good job.”
McKay had plenty to take away from the game, beyond the bragging rights of showing his two-way ability in racing off the mound to catch a foul popup near third.
He got the win, the balls from his first pitch and first strikeout, and the now-mandatory clubhouse shower celebration, where teammates poured anything they could find on him. “Cold and messy,’’ McKay said. “I had my eyes closed.’’
Best of all, he gets to pitch again for the Rays.
On Friday, against the first-place Yankees.
They’re playing across the pond this weekend, but they’ll know by then, too.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.