BRADENTON, Fla. — When catcher Michael McKenry headed south for spring training this year, he was in a much different situation than the year prior. McKenry attended camp with the Colorado Rockies to start the spring of 2011 before he was traded to the Red Sox at the end of March. This year, however, McKenry looks to be the lock as the Pirates backup catcher and said this spring training feels different.
“I think as the spring goes on, it’s gong to be easier and easier to get more comfortable,” McKenry said. “But I think sometimes I still want to put a little too much pressure on myself though. I want to try too hard, especially at the plate. [I’m] just trying to stay within myself and do what I can to help the team. Too often we want it to be there immediately. Whether you’re pitching, you’re hitting, fielding, you want immediate results. It’s just not the way the game works. I just got to slow it down and have fun.”
McKenry, 27, hit .222 with 17 runs, 12 doubles, two homers with 11 RBI over 58 games with Pittsburgh last season. Prior to being traded from Triple-A Pawtucket (Red Sox), McKenry hit for a .274 clip over 29 games. McKenry was solid behind the plate, but contributed his struggles at the plate to being more mental. Over the offseason McKenry worked on a little bit of everything to get more confident at the plate.
“I just tried to get my whole arsenal a little bit better, and just try to help out the team in any way that I can,” McKenry said. “Things I worked with [Pirates Manager Clint] Hurdle this off-season, more the mental side of the game. Just keeping it simple and not try to do too much. I think too often in this game we try to push a little too hard. You gain more success when you don’t try quite as hard.”
McKenry has been catching right-hander Jeff Karstens so far this spring. Karstens, who posted a 3.38 ERA last season with the Bucs, said he has a great relationship with McKenry.
“Last year was a tough year on our catchers,” Karstens said. “I broke it down one time during this spring and I threw to eight different guys [last season]. To have Michael come in, step in and be the guy that he was last year behind the plate was huge for our staff. I think it’s something that’s going to carry him into this year and benefit us all.”
“Michael really buys into the idea that the pitcher has for a game plan. Even my fiancé says she likes seeing Michael play. When he plays, he looks like he really cares. He really does. He has a deep passion for this game. When I talk about pitching, or whether it be like [Wednesday], when he took the foul ball off the wrist and I just cracked jokes with him the entire way to the mound trying to get his mind of getting hit in the hand. We talk and talk and talk. We’re always trying to work to get better, and I think that’s something that’s going to be beneficial to this pitching staff because he really cares about each and every guy that goes out there. It’s fun to watch.”
That’s something McKenry said he takes a lot of pride in.
“I really care about other people,” McKenry said. “Not just our pitching staff. We have a good group of guys. I try to spend as much time as I can with them. Try to be their best friend,. Try to learn what makes them tick. I feel like if I can do that, I feel like I can help the team. I spend a lot of time with those guys. I want the best for them. I don’t just want the best for me, or anything like that. I’d rather go 0-for-4 with four K’s, if they throw a shutout.”
On the field, McKenry said he does put the pitchers as his No. 1 priority. But behind the scenes, which most people don’t get to see, McKenry said he works hard on his swing to help out at the plate as well.
“I work my tail off because I know as a hitter if I can drive in a run, walk, or score a run, it’s going to help them pitch a little bit better,” McKenry said. “It’s easier to pitch with a lead, then obviously pitch behind. Last year, we had a lot of tight games and it’s always easier if you’re up one or two runs, then if you’re down one or two runs. Our pitching staff did a great job keeping us in the ballgame last year. Hopefully this year we can give them a little more support. I think we’re going to be able to, and it’s going to be fun.”
Having never played in spring training in Florida before (both the Rockies and Red Sox train in Arizona), McKenry is enjoying the change of games in the Grapefruit League. McKenry also will be working with Rod Barajas, not only during the spring, but during the season with Pittsburgh. Barajas, who signed a one-year deal over the offseason, has been a catcher over the parts of 13 years in the big leagues.
“I feel like it’s a big brother, little brother relationship a little bit already,” McKenry said. “He kind of picks on me. We have a good time. He extended his hand already in every aspect. I’m really enjoying getting to know him and learning from him.”
It may be McKenry’s first spring with the Pirates this year, but since he was acquired from Boston in June, McKenry fit in with the club right away less than a year ago.
“I think it’s just his nature, his attitude,” Karstens said. “He’s just kind of quiet and goes about his business. I think it shows that his hard work pays off. He’s a great guy, teammate, and great catcher. He really loves being back there and playing hard.”
Great story, Kristy. Let’s hope some consistency behind the plate this year will yield better results from the pitching staff.