Michael McKenry's first home run Sunday seemed like nothing more than a minor speed bump on the Cincinnati Reds' road to a streak-busting win at PNC Park. The Pirates appeared to be down and out and were doing nothing against Reds starter Mat Latos, who has owned them during his career. McKenry's knock to center field leading off the seventh inning made it 5-1.
But McKenry's second home run, which just snuck over the left-field wall in the eighth inning?
"It's indescribable," he would say later. "It's one of those things you can't describe unless you go through it."
This two-run McKenry home run off reliever Jonathan Broxton tied the score, 6-6. The Pirates went on to win, 10-7, in one of the great comebacks in PNC Park history. They didn't just sweep the Reds, the team to beat in the National League Central Division. They handed them their fifth consecutive defeat.
To say it was "very gratifying and a good feeling" -- manager Clint Hurdle's words -- for the Pirates is an understatement. The Reds didn't just go 11-7 last season against the Pirates on their way to a 97-win season and the division title. They rubbed the Pirates' noses in it, everything from closer Aroldis Chapman nearly decapitating Andrew McCutchen with a 101-mph fastball to second baseman Brandon Phillips maliciously and unjustifiably insinuating that Jared Hughes is a racist.
To say the win was unlikely also wouldn't be doing it justice. The Pirates scored 30 runs in their first 11 games. They scored 10 in two innings against the Reds. The Pirates hit three home runs in the first 11 games. They hit three in those two innings, including the final one by Starling Marte, a two-run shot off Broxton that gave the Pirates an 8-6 lead. It just snuck inside the left-field foul pole.
"It was fair enough," a gleeful Hurdle said.
You could feel similar joy in every corner of the Pirates clubhouse.
"This is my third year here," McKenry said. "You can never count us out. We're relentless ...
"We all know one game can keep us out of the playoffs. Every one we can win like this is huge ...
"I've been to Penguins games and I've seen Steelers games. Nobody likes to come here. Nobody likes to come play in Pittsburgh. I think that feeling is starting to come into PNC Park."
The Pirates have a long way to go to think about the playoffs or reach the level of the Penguins and Steelers. Despite the sweep, they are just 6-6 with no guarantee of ending their frightful record streak of 20 seasons of losing. But don't hold McKenry's excitement against him. He earned every bit of it on this day.
This wasn't McKenry's first dramatic home run at PNC Park. He hit a two-run shot off the New York Mets' Johan Santana in May 2012 in the seventh inning to pull the Pirates into a 4-4 tie. They went on to win, 5-4. The one he hit off Chicago Cubs closer Carlos Marmol in July 2011 was even bigger. It was a three-run blast in the eighth inning and gave the Pirates the deciding runs in a 7-4 win. A throbbing sellout crowd of 37,140 demanded McKenry take a curtain call. It was one of the most electric nights at the ballpark.
"It was humbling. You never forget that feeling," McKenry said. "The fans here have been great to me. I feel like I have a real connection with the city."
It's easy to root for McKenry. He is refreshing in a sport filled with egomaniacs and those who feel entitled. He's thankful for the opportunity the Pirates have given him, thankful to be in the big leagues and thankful for every chance he gets to play and help the team win.
"He competes," Hurdle said. "He works as hard as anyone we have."
The talk shows will be buzzing today with callers screaming at Hurdle to go with McKenry as his No. 1 catcher. The Pirates brought in Russell Martin in the offseason with a two-year, $17 million deal. Martin is off to a horrible 2-for-31 start (.065) with one RBI after hitting .211 last season for the New York Yankees.
The guess here is Hurdle will stick with Martin. That is the correct call. Martin did hit 21 home runs last season. It's far too soon to give up on him. As for McKenry? Role players often produce good results because they're not overexposed. McKenry played a lot late last season and hit .120 in his final 20 games.
Know this about McKenry:
He will be the last guy to scream at Hurdle about his playing time.
"I control the controllables," McKenry said. "Russ has been outstanding behind the plate. Every single day, he brings energy, which is something we really need."
Few jobs in baseball are harder than backup catcher. McKenry says he doesn't worry about it.
"I come to the ballpark every day thinking I'm going to play. When you take that approach, you have a chance to be successful."
So it was that McKenry arrived at PNC Park Sunday morning and saw his name in the lineup. When he left late Sunday afternoon, this much was clear: It was a wonderfully successful day.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published April 15, 2013 4:00 AM