BOZICH | Shrewd strategy or wild pitch? Louisville not starting McKay in Game One against Kentucky
Baseball America announced Louisville's Brendan McKay was its national player of the year. And U of L coach Dan McDonnell said McKay will not start against UK Friday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Baseball America named Brendan McKay its national player of the year Thursday, joining a club that includes Kris Bryant, David Price and Buster Posey.
McKay won the award because he is the most ferocious two-way player in college baseball, a left-handed hitter with consistent thump as well as a left-handed pitcher with the dazzling stuff that will make him a top five pick in the Major League Free Agent Draft next week. Many scouts project him as a pro pitcher.
If you have one game to win, you give the baseball to McKay. Then you exhale.
Except in the Super Regional Louisville will play against Kentucky at Jim Patterson Stadium this weekend.
U of L coach Dan McDonnell will not give the ball to McKay on Friday when the Cardinals open their best-of-three series against the Wildcats.
Kade McClure will start.
“We just feel that (Kade’s) the guy who can set the tone and do what we need him to do,” McDonnell said Thursday. “We’re very confident in his ability.”
McKay will pitch Saturday. Maybe Sunday. Or maybe not at all if the Cardinals can handle the Wildcats without McKay pitching Friday or Saturday.
Is this McDonnell trying to get ahead of Kentucky with a change-up or is the coach risking a wild pitch?
I wouldn’t risk it.
I realize Kentucky coach Nick Mingione will also not start his best. On Friday, the Wildcats will use freshman Zack Thompson before going to Sean Hjelle, the Southeastern Conference pitcher of the year, Saturday.
One difference: Hjelle threw 35 pitches Monday while working the final 3 1/3 innings of UK’s final regional win against North Carolina State. That was three days after Hjelle worked seven innings and threw 107 pitches in the regional opener with Ohio University.
McKay has not pitched since last Saturday. He’s rested – and Louisville’s ace. Here is what McDonnell said about McKay in Baseball America’s Player of the Year story:
“If you put Brendan the pitcher on one side and Brendan the hitter on the other side, they could almost have their own competition to see who’s better at that craft.”
Baseball is a game that thrives on second-guessing. If the plan works, McDonnell will be celebrated for shrewd strategy and exquisite gamesmanship. If the plan crumbles, McDonnell will be asked how he could possibly start a series without pitching Clayton Kershaw in Game One.
This is a first guess. I don’t like it.
I understand the idea is to give McKay his usual complete week of rest. He pitched last Saturday against Oklahoma in game two of the regional after McClure pitched the opener against Radford. McDonnell noted this will be the fourth consecutive Friday that McClure has pitched.
I also understand that to advance to Omaha, Louisville must win twice, not once. Saturday matters as much as Friday.
Beat Kentucky on Friday and use McKay as the hammer Saturday or as the closeout guy Sunday.
Lose to Kentucky on Friday, and you’ve got McKay waiting to balance the series Saturday.
Sensible. Defensible. Understandable.
But reasonable baseball people can disagree. I question the risk of not starting the series with the best left-handed pitcher in college baseball.
This is a Louisville program that has lost at home to lower-ranked opponents in back-to-back Super Regionals. Better for the Cards to get ahead Friday and have two chances at the Kill Shot.
If Louisville loses Friday, the Cardinals’ margin of error is going, going, gone. The air of an elimination game will surround Patterson Stadium.
McClure is an excellent pitcher. He certainly could defeat Kentucky Friday. He’s won seven games this season.
But McKay has been an extraordinary pitcher. McKay is considerably more likely to give Kentucky fits –- and that’s without factoring the added benefit that he would be a left-handed pitcher against a UK lineup stacked with strong left-handed bats.
McKay’s earned run average is 1.32 runs per game better than McClure.
Opponents hit .178 against McKay this season, .224 against McClure.
McKay has thrown six more innings, but posted 35 more strikeouts.
McClure has hit nine batters. McKay hasn’t hit any.
McKay has thrown five shutouts, McClure one.
McClure is excellent. McKay is the national college baseball player of the year.
But starting Kade McClure in the opener is Dan McDonnell’s confident play.
If it works and the Cardinals get to Omaha, McDonnell will be the guy who outmaneuvered Kentucky.
But if it turns out to be a wild pitch, Louisville baseball fans will have plenty to fuss about -- again.
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