CRAWFORD | McKay holds Oklahoma at bay until Louisville bats awaken in 11-1 NCAA victory
The Louisville offense has awakened, but Eric Crawford credits pitcher Brendan McKay's 100-pitch, 7-plus inning effort for setting up the fireworks in an 11-1 NCAA victory over Oklahoma.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – You know Brendan McKay is the best two-way player in college baseball. You know that he was the best two-way player last year, and the year before that, and you know that he is the best two-way player this year.
You know that he’s already been named national player of the year by one publication, and that that he has a chance to be the top player taken in the Major League Draft, and if not, certainly he’ll be among the first players taken. You know that he not only could be a big-league pitcher, but a big-league hitter.
And after the University of Louisville’s 11-1 win over Oklahoma to advance to the Cardinals’ sixth straight regional final, you now know that in pressure situations, he’s money -- if you didn’t know already.
McKay, in a tight game, pitched 6 1/3 innings, giving up just three hits and one run, striking out seven and walking two. But more than that, he battled. He set a tone of toughness for a Louisville team that needed it. He threw 100 pitches. McKay is as low-key a guy as you're going to find. Even he, however, acknowledged he brought a little something extra on Saturday.
"I’d say everything felt a little more crisp today," he said. "I don’t know if it’s just getting an extra day rest or that adrenaline from the postseason and the atmosphere we have with the great fans. Everything feels a little different. The ball comes out of your hand a little different. It’s got a little more life to it and everything just from that feeling of something being on the line with a little more purpose.”
You got the feeling during the more tense moments of Saturday’s game that things could go either way for Louisville. The Cards could take a step back and fade after a fantastic regular season, or they’d find something within themselves, kick into another gear and speed forward toward another serious bid at the College World Series.
McKay’s toughness on the mound, if you ask me, was that thing that made the difference. He held a high-scoring Oklahoma team at bay until Louisville’s bats could wake up. Three years in a row, when Louisville has been up 1-0 in a regional situation, it has handed the ball to McKay. It has won all three of those games.
Here's all you need to know about him -- he tied Kyle Funkhouser for the school's career record of 376 strikeouts, and had no idea.
"That’s why McKay is the greatest," McDonnell said. "He’s never shopped for individual awards, he never talks about it. He honestly didn’t know, I didn’t know. It’s nothing we ever address and I think that’s always why he’s been such a great teammate and elevated this program, because you never feel like he’s chasing individual accolades. He just wants to win. He loves to compete. I’ve said we’re so blessed to have him. I’m appreciative that the fans realized what a special night it was for him. . . . How big it is to have a guy like that going in this game? I felt like he was going throw hard. He threw hard in this game last year. It seemed like harder than he normally has. It has been a long year. I think those extra days of rest and like he said the adrenalin from the fans really helped him.”
The alarm for Louisville's offense went off in the eighth inning, just after McKay's departure, when it broke a 1-1 tie with seven runs. A two-run single by Logan Taylor, a two-run triple by Colby Fitch and a two-run single by Colin Lyman were the key hits.
Taylor, the leadoff hitter, drove in three runs in the game, thanks once again to the Cards getting key production from the bottom of their batting order. Oklahoma coach Pete Hughes said he thought Taylor's eighth inning at-bat, when he reached across the plate on a ball likely out of the strike zone and punched it out for a two-run single that broke the game open.
"Logan Taylor, the kid's a senior, how many big at-bats has that kid had, and he got the cap on it and put the ball in play and got a big hit," Hughes said. "That was the deciding play of the game. I can live with it because the pitch was really executed, but a really good player won the battle. To me that was the game."
McDonnell said kind production from the bottom of the order is a major factor for this team.
“I think it’s the key. It’s the key to being a really good club or a special club,” McDonnell said Friday night. “It can’t always be McKay and [Drew] Ellis, it needs to be other guys and I guess we had our eight and nine hole hitters sitting up here tonight. It’s that competition within the program. Guys really push each other and it helps them get better. The culture of being around really good players. I always tell people these are goal-oriented kids. They got goals in the classroom, they got goals in the community, and they obviously got a lot of goals baseball-wise whether it’s individually trying to get ready for the next level and they’ve got goals as a team. I think they really help each other, they feed off each other, they respect each other, and, most important, I think they love each other. It’s just enjoyable for me seeing how much fun they have with each other and how much they care about each other.”
All that is great. But having the best player in the country does come in handy. And on Saturday night, McKay played like it.
"What I like about him, for a kid of that high profile there's usually an arrogance about them. He has none of that. He has quiet confidence," Hughes said of him. "That probably speaks to the quality of their program, but for a kid to be as high-profile as he's been, and productive as he's been, and to take on being the face of one of the most successful programs of the past decade, and do it with class and respect for the game and his university, that's what stuck out to me. I knew we were going to see good stuff."
The Louisville offense springing to life likely will grab most of the headlines. But that might not have happened without McKay’s dogged effort on the mound.
When McDonnell came to take him out of the game in the seventh inning, he gestured for the fans to acknowledge what the ace of his staff had done. They did. In the ninth, after McKay left for a pinch runner following his two-run double, he slipped off the field so quickly that there wasn’t much time for an ovation.
This kid shouldn’t slip out of town without feeling a great deal of appreciation. College World Series or not, he’s fashioned one of the great careers in school history in any sport. His play Saturday night was just a reminder.
"Three straight years, he is throwing in the 1-0 game, the biggest game in college baseball. Get off your seat and recognize the greatest player ever to play here and we needed the crowd," McDonnell said. "That’s all we need. We need the crowd. . . . That was the inning that sparked, got the two huge outs and came off and the dugout exploded and that was the momentum. That was clearly the momentum shift we needed. I wanted our fans to let Brendan know how special he has been to this place. . . . You don't know if he's going to get a chance to do that again.”
But perhaps he will. Louisville will play again at 7 Sunday night against the winner of the day's first game, between Oklahoma and Xavier, for a chance to keep going.
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