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Hard-nosed Pirates catcher McKenry is a lock for the roster

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012
 

In a game during the first week of spring training, Pirates catcher Michael McKenry took a foul ball off his wrist. Pitcher Jeff Karstens noticed the large, painful welt when McKenry made a mound visit a couple of innings later.

"I just cracked jokes with him the whole time, trying to get his mind off of it," Karstens said. "He loves being back there and playing hard. If I'd got hit in the hand, I'd probably be like, 'Aw, it's spring training. I'm going to come out of the game.' But he stayed (in the game) and worked with me, and I can't say enough about that."

McKenry's grit and stubborn dedication to the game and especially to his pitchers is why he quickly morphed from being merely a guy acquired out of desperation last year to a player who was a shoo-in to stick on the roster this spring.

It's the first time in McKenry's career that he opened the season in the big leagues.

"It feels so good," McKenry said, "because I had to conquer some things to get here."

A year ago, McKenry was traded from Colorado to Boston at the end of spring training. Neither club offered him much chance to play in the majors. McKenry's situation changed dramatically when the catcher-depleted Pirates acquired him in mid-June.

"Coming here was the best thing that could've happened to me," McKenry said.

The Pirates got McKenry, 27, from the Red Sox for cash considerations one of those transactions that's reported in agate type instead of 60-point headlines. He caught in 58 games, the most among the eight catchers the team used last year.

"It was a good opportunity to learn," McKenry said. "I just kind of kept my mouth shut and my ears open as much as possible."

A string of injuries had forced the Pirates into the baseball equivalent of open mic night behind the plate. Eric Fryer wasn't ready for the majors. Wyatt Toregas was ragged, and Dusty Brown was even worse.

When McKenry arrived, he quickly built a strong rapport with practically every pitcher on the staff.

"It sounds crazy, but it happened right away," McKenry said. "In my first game, I caught Paul (Maholm), and he was very responsive to me, even with me being a younger guy. He took some feedback from me immediately and, with him being a veteran, I listened to him immediately. A lot of those guys I got to know really well, really fast."

That's important, because he figures to start 70 to 80 games this season as Rod Barajas' backup. Barajas has played in more than 104 games just once in the past seven seasons.

"He really cares about each guy who goes out there (to pitch)," Karstens said. "It's fun to watch. To have Michael step in and be the guy he was last year was huge for our staff. That's going to carry over. He's not cocky or overconfident. He just quietly goes about his business."

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