Pirates catcher Michael McKenry rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run Wednesday against the Chicago Cubs in the eighth inning.
By Michael Sanserino Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHICAGO -- Two months into the season, Michael McKenry was frustrated. Discouraged. Perplexed.
He invested a lot into the offseason to make himself a better hitter -- even flew to meet manager Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh and in Bradenton, Fla., to work on his swing.
What did it produce by the end of May? A .196 batting average and little else.
"I work my tail off for a reason, and you think you should get that instant result," McKenry said. "That's not how it works."
So, he adjusted. Not his swing, but his mind.
In the two months since, McKenry is hitting .321 with 23 RBIs in 23 starts. He blasted a three-run homer Wednesday, his 10th this season, as part of a five-run eighth inning that helped the Pirates beat the Chicago Cubs, 8-4, at Wrigley Field.
"He works as hard as any young man I've ever been in contact with," Hurdle said. "It's just a nice story and a testament to actually outworking some people."
He was plagued the first two months by pressures and expectations he placed on himself to become the player he thought he was building with his hard work.
"I want to be the guy that at the end of my career, everybody's like, 'He played hard every day. He gave it all he's got for his teammates,' " McKenry said. "I was putting too much pressure on myself. That's a common thing in my mind. I think it's a growing up issue."
He tried to distance himself from the game. A devout Christian, McKenry said he put his faith in focus -- not because he believed God would make him a better player, but because he believed he worried too much about baseball.
"Too often, we put too much into this game," he said. "There are many things bigger than this."
McKenry made mental adjustments as well, said hitting coach Gregg Ritchie.
"It's all about his confidence, his belief and his routine," Ritchie said. "He stays strict to it. He's got a solid willingness to make adjustments and have conversations about pitchers."
And, there have been mechanical changes. He has relaxed his upper body and become a bit more flexible in his swing.
"That's been an evolution probably over the last month, changed his routine a little bit about that time to add some things," Ritchie said. "He's got some mentality changes that have allowed him to really relax."
His three-run homer was one of seven consecutive hits the Pirates strung together in the eighth to pad a lead that had remained at one run since the third inning.
Andrew McCutchen went 2 for 3 and scored three runs, and Garrett Jones came off the bench to go 2 for 2 with a run and three RBIs in the final two innings.
Jeff Karstens (4-2) lasted five innings, allowing one earned run and three hits with one walk and four strikeouts. After losing his first two decisions this season, Karstens has won four in a row.
Cubs starter Travis Wood (4-7) took the loss, allowing two earned runs and three hits in five innings. He walked three and struck out six, but one misstep gave the Pirates a lead they would not relinquish.
Wood balked in the third inning, allowing McCutchen to score and give the Pirates a 2-1 lead. Wood stood with his foot on the rubber, waiting for a sign from catcher Wellington Castillo, then he double-clutched.
It was the fifth run the Pirates have scored this road trip -- now seven games old -- without putting the ball in play. The Cubs (43-60) walked home a run Monday, and the Astros had two wild pitches and a passed ball that allowed Pirates to score.
Closer Joel Hanrahan was battered in a non-save situation, allowing three earned runs on five hits before striking out the side to end the game.
It was the 60th victory this season for the Pirates (60-44), who need to win 22 of their final 58 games to clinch their first winning season in the past 20 years. And while the team is enjoying the journey, nobody is marveling at what they have accomplished -- not even McKenry, who is having a standout season.
"I keep remembering the word Hurdle used in our first meeting: finish," he said. "We're not done. We don't have time to look back right now."