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Blackhawk's Brendan McKay has a case for program's best ever

| Tuesday, April 9, 2013, 11:48 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Blackhawk's Brendan McKay pitches against Mars on April 3, 2013, at Chippewa Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Blackhawk's Brendan McKay rounds the bases after homering against Mars on April 3, 2013, at Chippewa Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
South Park's Nick Yobbi pitches against Montour on Wednesday May 2, 2012.

Blackhawk's Brendan McKay has been called the best pitcher in the WPIAL,. But best in Cougars history?

Now that title won't come as easily.

“That's really hard to say, because I wouldn't want to offend anybody,” said coach Bob Amalia, who already has ushered Blackhawk graduates Brian Omogrosso, Clayton Hamilton and Adam Liberatore to professional pitching careers.

But of this he's certain: McKay has been the best two-way player in his 15 years as coach. And he adds that the tall lefty has the pitching potential to rival those three Cougar alums.

“McKay has the ability to be as good as them or better,” Amalia said, “but a lot depends on how he develops. The sky's the limit.”

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior had 12 strikeouts in Monday's 2-0 section victory, an 88-pitch complete-game shutout over Central Valley, when he drove home one run and scored the other. McKay homered twice in the season opener. In three games, he has hits in nine of his 12 at-bats. When not pitching, McKay handles first base.

Kentucky, Louisville and Wake Forest are among the colleges recruiting him, but professional scouts are interested, too. The Colorado Rockies had a scout at Chippewa Park on Monday.

“We're constantly getting calls every day on him,” Amalia said.

As a freshman, he was 6-0 with a 0.88 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 48 innings. As a sophomore, McKay was 9-1 with a 0.51 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 81 innings and Blackhawk won the WPIAL Class AAA title.

But this year, as the only starter back from last year's championship lineup, he'll be needed even more. Black-marker letters under the bill of McKay's cap read: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.

“I feel a little more responsibility to take a leader role and to keep everybody in line during practice,” he said. “But on the field, everybody has filled in perfectly.”

McKay added about 15 pounds in offseason workouts. He has a mid-80s fastball and a solid changeup. But it's his curveball that seems most unhittable.

With Central Valley runners on first and second, McKay needed one strike to end Monday's game. With two outs and a full count, McKay threw his curve to record the pivotal strikeout.

“He's one of the few guys who could throw a curveball in any situation,” said assistant Joe Boyer, who calls pitches during games. “Most kids you have to start out with the fastball, hope we get ahead in the count and then throw a curveball. With him, from the first pitch, we can do whatever we want.”

But they haven't relied on that curveball, an effort to protect McKay's arm. Amalia's staff members have been cautious; when McKay's arm was sore in last year's state semifinals, the team used three other pitchers to complete the season-ending loss.

“I think a lot of coaches would have said, ‘You're good, just go out and go,' ” Amalia said. “But you just don't want to mess him up.”

Blackhawk has had its share of good arms to protect, with more than a dozen Division I recruits under Amalia.

“That helps a lot,” McKay said, “He knows what to do with a pitcher, what their abilities are, and how to use them.”

Omogrosso and Hamilton both pitched for Amalia before successful college careers led them to the pros. Omogrosso, who's a reliever for the Chicago White Sox's Triple-A affiliate, was a sixth-round draft pick in 2006. He was the last cut in spring training. Hamilton, who spent the past two seasons pitching in Japan, was drafted in 2004.

Liberatore pitched sparingly as a Blackhawk senior but has found success as a reliever in Tampa Bay's farm system since being drafted in 2010. Liberatore, a fellow lefty, has worked out with McKay. Amalia credits that lineage for Blackhawk's abundance of arms.

“Success from one kid breeds success to another,” Amalia said. “When a younger kid sees McKay, maybe they'll say this is what they want to do, too.”

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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