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After dazzling pitching debut, Brendan McKay gets to take his swings

Six shutout innings Saturday, then McKay gets to make history for Rays with a Monday DH start DH, though he went 0-for-4.
Brendan McKay went hitless in four at bats in his major league debut as a hitter Monday against Baltimore. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Jul. 2
Updated Jul. 2

ST. PETERSBURG — How Brendan McKay did as the DH for the Rays on Monday night against the Orioles wasn’t the point, which was good since he grounded into outs all four times up.

More so, just that he got to take his swings.

McKay made a tremendous first impression on Saturday when he delivered a dazzling debut on the mound, retiring his first 16 and working six scoreless innings.

Then Monday he made history, joining the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani in the very small group of modern-day two-way players.

“He looked very comfortable, put himself in some pretty good hitters counts just rolled some balls over caught 'em out front,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "The encouraging thing is you see him on the pull side. He was ready to hit. He wasn't feeling his way around.''

That McKay did so in just his second game made it even more of an accomplishment, even with the 0-for-4 and getting picked off second.

Going back the 100-plus years records are available, McKay is just the fourth player to begin his big-league career with a start as a pitcher and as a non-pitcher within his first two games, per Stats LLC. The others were Ohtani (in 2018), Syd Cohen (1934 Senators) and Carl East (1915 Browns, 1924 Senators).

Between the historical connotations and the curiosity of fans locally, nationally and in Ohtani’s native Japan, this seemed like a pretty big deal.

Except, naturally, to the low-key McKay.

While appreciative of the opportunity, the 23-year-old lefty saw it as just another day in the life he’s led at every level of baseball on his way to the majors, proving skeptics and haters wrong along the way.

“Yeah, there’s satisfaction knowing you’re going to get a chance to do both (in the majors),’’ he said. “There’s always going to be doubters and people saying it’s hard to be done or it can’t be done.

“If you don’t have success people are going to knock on you for that. But it’s what you want to do. And if you want to do it, you’re going to believe in yourself and you’re going to have that deep down desire to keep doing it and getting better every time you go up there.’’

McKay has been tested. The numbers through his first two pro seasons after being drafted fourth overall from Louisville in 2017 made him look like a much better pitcher (6-2, 2.29) than hitter (.221 average, 727 OPS). And that sparked chatter he’d be better off sticking to mound work and getting to the majors quicker.

McKay, though, wanted to keep doing both, and still does. “As long as I can until it obviously makes sense to only focus on one, or something happens that makes me choose one,’’ he said.

The Rays weren’t ready to tell him no, so they pitched a new plan. McKay could keep hitting in 2019, but only as a DH rather than playing first base, a plan to simplify his workload, and to keep him healthy as he twice in 2018 had oblique issues. A schedule was set for him to pitch every six days, resting the day before and after starts, DH-ing the other three, and throwing his between-starts bullpen on the middle day.

He began this season at Double-A Montgomery hitting even worse (.167 average. .448 OPS), but pitching even better, earning a late May promotion to Triple A. And when he got to Durham, his bat came alive. Whether getting comfortable DH-ing, making adjustments at the plate or sensing he was one step from the show, the results, in 15 games, were good: .265 average, four homers, .951 OPS.

Good enough that he got the chance Monday, batting eighth in the Rays lineup. (And as much as McKay downplayed it, he was clearly excited, telling hitting coach Chad Mottola shortly after he was done pitching Saturday how excited he was to get in the cage Sunday and start swinging.)

"It’s just been great to get everything out of the way quickly and get your feet wet on both sides, pitching and hitting,'' McKay said. "Just to get in there and feel, like, normal.''

McKay may be the next of several, or even many. Ohtani’s emergence last year in doing things last accomplished by Babe Ruth and winning AL Rookie of the Year honors (though tempered by Tommy John surgery that will limit him to only hitting this season), and McKay’s arrival seems likely to lead to more two-way players.

“I think a lot of kids may want to now that they’ve seen multiple people do it,’’ McKay said. “The success that Ohtani’s had and hopefully the success that I’ll have will spark guys like, Hey, if I’m doing this in high school, try and do it in college. If I’m doing it well in college try and have a ballclub let me do it. And keep doing it successfully until you have to make a choice on one or the other.’’

Cash said he’s sure there will more teams experimenting given the obvious benefits. (The Rays have several other two-way players on the minors, including shortstop-turned-pitcher Jake Cronenworth at Triple-A.)

“There’s a lot of smart people in this game that would look to find ways to navigate the best roster throughout the season,’’ Cash said. “And if you have a two-way player that can do both, that’s pretty special.’’

More so, Cash said, when you appreciate how hard it is to do.

“It’s tough to hit at this level, it’s tough to pitch at this level,’’ he said. “I can’t imagine trying to do both and be successful at both.’’

The Rays are kind of figuring how to best use McKay as they go, Cash said. That includes if he sticks around after pitching again Friday against the Yankees, and if not, how soon he comes back.

The need for the arm is what got McKay called up, and he won’t get the planned opportunity to DH three straight games like in the minors, but having the extra bat on the bench can sure make him handy to have around.

Two ways to help the team is definitely better than one.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.


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