Thursday, July 21, 2011http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
Michael McKenry(notes) #55 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three run home run against the Chicago Cubs in the eighth inning during the game on July 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The Pirates will almost certainly transport to any pennant race critical additions to the inadequate offensive components currently at their disposal, a necessity that bloomed into full clarity when the batsmen managed only four runs in three games against pitching-challenged Cincinnati.
Andrew McCutchen, Clint Hurdle's All-Star cleanup hitter, drove in three of those four, and even that was in the middle of a 1-for-21 nosedive.
Minutes after watching the offense waste another seven strong innings from Jeff Karstens in a 3-1 daylight loss Wednesday to the Reds, Hurdle said the organization is looking at every way possible to spike its run production.
"We have missed the big hit," the manager said, "and it's something we've been aware of. We've given people a chance to find their comfort level, [but] we've got some guys who haven't provided what we thought they would offensively."
Too true, which is why no one is going to squawk much if the looming trade deadline and the resulting offensive reconfiguration means they've seen the last of Lyle Overbay (.236) or Garrett Jones (.234) or Chase d'Arnaud (.225) or Brandon Wood (.209) or Matt (no homers) Diaz, just to name a few, but look, here's what not to do:
Uproot Michael McKenry from behind the plate.
I don't care if he's hitting .227, nor do I care that his big league resume is still thinner than a Vogue model. I don't care that he's 26 years old and has already been traded twice since St. Patrick's Day, nor do I care that Neil Huntington was able to pry him off the roster of the Pawtucket Red Sox for one chorus of the player-to-be-named-later blues.
"I truly believe it's the same game," said McKenry, who has worked 520 minor league games and 32 major league games. "For some people I think it takes awhile to realize that. It's a little faster, and you see some plays get made that don't get made someplace else. But if you watch most players, they go through valleys offensively, and it's the ones who are All-Stars, or the ones who hit .280, who are able to minimize those stretches.
"So I think it's just about staying mentally strong, and that's what makes you able to help in some way. If I can just help in some way."
There's nothing that passes for logic on the baseball earth that would persuade anyone that McKenry hasn't helped make the Pirates perhaps the best story in the major leagues. When Huntington brought him here June 12, the Pirates were 31-33, idling in fourth place, six games out.
You want metrics?
Look at the Pirates' WPBM (winning percentage before McKenry); it's .484.
The Pirates' WPSM (you're way ahead of me) is .625. In the games since June 12 that Hurdle wrote "McKenry" onto his lineup card, the Pirates are 18-8. When he hasn't, they're 2-4. The manager has used seven catchers, six of whom haven't sniffed that kind of success.
His pitchers, Hurdle pointed out, have to get a lot of credit for that, but McKenry's solid defense isn't the only way he's helping. He had three hits the other night in Houston. He came within two inches of being on base three times again Wednesday. What's more, it's going to be hard for any current or soon-to-arrive Pirates hitter to top McKenry's at-bat July 8 against Carlos Marmol for raw inexplicable brilliance.
"I'm at my best at the plate when I'm not thinking," McKenry said in all candor. "When my mind is free, I can visualize the pitch better, see the ball better. You don't want to be a catcher at the plate, thinking of everything else that's going on."
You might remember McKenry's three-run homer that won that game, 7-4, that lifted them near first place in the seconds it was airborne, because that was momentous, but don't lose the at-bat, which was astounding.
He fouled the first pitch, then fouled the second, burying himself 0-2 against a guy with more big league saves than McKenry had at-bats.
Third pitch -- foul.
Fourth pitch -- foul.
Still 0-2, with McKenry at the mercy of a veteran closer's full repertoire.
Fifth pitch -- loud foul.
Sixth pitch ----very loud foul.
And still 0-2
Seventh pitch -- 420 feet to the left-field bleachers.
If that wasn't the best at-bat I've seen in this yard in 11 years, it's only because I'm having a hard time remembering things like, for example, Monday.
"I've always believed in myself," said McKenry, who spent almost all of his minor league career in the Rockies organization, where Hurdle spent almost all of his managerial career. "It's a matter of getting someone else to believe in you, and in keeping your confidence up."
It's not exactly impossible to find a better offensive catcher than McKenry in the trade market, but I sure wouldn't be leaning that way.
"Michael has brought a great dynamic to this club," Hurdle said. "With the ground we've covered with him behind the plate, he's put himself in a very stable situation."
The Pirates, you might have noticed, are more than stable. They're actually good. I'm not sure they would be without Fort McKenry.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org. More articles by this author