If college and professional baseball managed their draft eligibility rules as college basketball and the NBA, there's little doubt that University of Louisville rookie Brendan McKay would be a one-year player for the Cardinals.
The freshman, who grew up 45 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh in the tiny town of Darlington, Pa., had the resume to be a high round draft pick directly out of Blackhawk High School. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound left-hander was dominant on the mound, compiling a four-year record of 30-2 and never had ERA reach 1.00. He was also dominant at the plate, where he hit over .400 during his prep career.
His ability to be a lockdown pitcher, coupled with his skill at the plate, attracted not only college coaches, but scouts from every Major League Baseball franchise. When McKay was scheduled to pitch, it was near certain that a handful of pro scouts would be sitting behind home plate taking notes. As the draft neared, McKay had the choice of bypassing college for the professional ranks immediately, or head to college and spend at least three seasons improving his craft before becoming eligible for draft again.
Projected to be selected among the first ten rounds in the 2014 draft, McKay focused on attending college and set a minimum criteria, including a signing bonus that is believed to be in the ballpark of $1 million, for any pro team that hoped to sign him.
Professional baseball balked. McKay, who was a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania, dropped to the 34th round where he was selected by the San Diego Padres, which cemented his decision to play college ball for Dan McDonnell at Louisville.
Now a few months into his freshman season, one has to wonder if there are a few MLB general managers kicking themselves for not taking him in last year's draft. In just a few short months, McKay has performed like a high-round draft pick and has already added to his eventual professional value.
"That's all in the past," McKay explained. "In the professional game it is a money business. They get who they want, but have to pay a certain amount of money to get him. It doesn't upset me or anything like that. I know two years from now I can still get what I wanted or even more."
McKay's season began quietly at the Opening Weekend Challenge in Clearwater, Fla., in February, but was enough to provide a glimpse into his potential. His first appearance at the plate resulted in a pinch-hit single up the middle in the Cardinals 7-3 win over South Florida in the season's second game. The next day he worked two innings of relief work on the mound without allowing a hit against Cal State Fullerton.
When the Cardinals returned home to Jim Patterson Stadium for five games in six days in early March, McKay saw his role increase and the result was immediate. With ace reliever Zack Burdi sidelined with an injury, McKay took temporary hold of that spot in the bullpen, while also seeing time at first base and designated hitter. He played in all five games, going 6-for-12, with 4 RBI at the plate. He also collected three saves, allowing just two hits and no runs, while striking out eight.
"There's some star power in there," McDonnell said at the time. "He seems very poised, he doesn't get to high and doesn't get to low. He seems to just play the game. Trusts his ability to the game and its a special talent."
He has since become the regular Saturday starting pitcher for the Cardinals and now leads the team with an 8-1 record. His 1.65 ERA and 88 strikeouts is also tops on the staff. He's also fourth on the team with 165 at-bats, where he's hitting .321 with 28 RBI. He's had a number of amazing highlights this season, including picking up his second career victory when he hit a walk-off single to clinch the team's ACC opening series against Miami. Most recently, his 6.1 innings of no-hit work against No.10 Florida State last Saturday helped the Cardinals clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title.
What Louisville is experiencing is more rare than many may realize. Excelling as a two-way player in the high school ranks can be common, but the ability for a player to maintain that into college and eventually into pro baseball is not often seen.
"I think it's pretty unique," he said. "You don't see it a lot. There probably haven't been that many two-way players be successful in college. It's different than high school because everyday you are facing top pitchers."
The nation has noticed. He earned ACC Pitcher of the Week honors for his performance against the Seminoles and he's present on the Golden Spikes Award watch list, an honor that is given to the nation's top player. He's also on watch lists for Pitcher of the Year and the John Olerud Award, which is given to the nation's top two-way player. While the accolades continue to mount, McKay remains constant with this focused and calm approach to the game.
"I think it's just how I play the game," he told Cardinal Authority. "I try not to show to much emotion, or get to high or to low. I just try to go out there and play the game I love to play."
Despite his play being consistent from the beginning, the spotlight from the media, especially locally, has significantly increased over the past few games and while the added attention is noticeable, McKay's focus remains with the team and its goals.
"It's kind of sinking in now that we are getting closer to the end of the regular season, but I still go out there with the mindset that I need to do things for my team that will help them be in place for a victory every game," he said.
McKay's calm demeanor fits his head coach's frequent saying of, "don't get to high and don't get to low." When many young athletes enjoy the attention and will use it further their individual careers, McKay's approach has always been team first. After playing travel team ball during the ages of 10-14, he somewhat bucked the trend and spent the next few years focused primarily with his high school team.
"I think it made me focus more as a team member," he explained. "You can't go out there playing for yourself, you have to play as a team for a team goal."
Despite having made back-to-back trips to the College World Series, U of L was picked to finish third in the ACC during its inaugural season in the league, but as the program continually does, it exceeded expectations. So, when the team gathered around home plate to celebrate the Cardinals division title following McKay's last start, the feeling of holding up the ACC trophy was significant.
"It feels amazing to hold that pretty trophy up and say we're the champions even though a lot people doubted us and thought we weren't going to be as good as we were," he said.
Louisville closes out its regular season with a three-game set at North Carolina State. The series begins on Thursday at 6:00 p.m., with first pitch for Friday schedule for 6:30 p.m. Saturday's game is slated for 1:00p.m. All games will be broadcast on ESPN3.