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McKenry a leader for Pirates

December 14, 2012
By John Hartsock ( , The Altoona Mirror

With a career-high dozen homers and 39 RBIs in part-time catching duty last season, Michael McKenry provided the Pittsburgh Pirates with a spark at the plate.

The 5-10, 215-pound McKenry's value to the team far exceeds his batting statistics, however. It's not just his willingness to sacrifice his body to block wild pitches or chase foul pop-ups into screens and dugouts that makes the unassuming 27-year-old Tennessee native a leader by example.

It's also his zest for the game and the emotional energy that he brings to the table.

"You just have to play the game the right way,'' McKenry said earlier this week while visiting Altoona as part of the Pittsburgh Pirates' Winter Caravan.

According to third base coach Nick Leyva, who was also among the six Pirates' Caravan representatives on hand at Peoples Natural Gas Field, McKenry has always done just that.

"He adds pop and he adds a lot of energy,'' Leyva said. "He plays the game the way it should be played. He gives it his all on a daily basis. He's a great kid to have on your club.''

McKenry, acquired by the Pirates in a trade with the Boston Red Sox in 2011, split catching duties last season with Rod Barajas. The 37-year-old Barajas was ineffective at throwing out opposing baserunners, and the Pirates didn't pick up his option this offseason.

Instead, they acquired veteran Russell Martin from the New York Yankees. Martin figures to get the lion's share of time behind the plate in 2013 for the Bucs, but McKenry, a consummate team player, is welcoming Martin aboard the Pirates' ship.

"He's been to the World Series, and he's a guy who comes in with a lot of experience, and a lot of veteran leadership,'' McKenry said. "He's going to help our team immediately.''

McKenry - who earned the nickname "The Fort" from Pirates' broadcast analyst Bob Walk for his ability to keep errant pitches in front of him - works tirelessly in the weight room to improve his strength. He was also diligent about putting in early-afternoon pre-game practice sessions last season to improve his throws to second base.

The former discipline helped him jack up his power numbers last year. The latter kept his percentage at throwing out opposing baserunners (18 percent, 13 of 74) somewhat reasonable, although he still knows there's plenty of room for improvement.

"It's just a matter of taking ownership of it, and putting it on your own shoulders at times,'' McKenry said of the challenge of keeping runners at bay. "No matter if the pitcher gives you a good chance or not, it's on you as a catcher to make a good throw down there.''

McKenry showed up hours before game times all summer long last season, working with bench coach Jeff Banister and former Buc coach Mark Strittmatter - who has since moved on to the Colorado Rockies - on perfecting his throws and hastening his release.

Ownership, accountability, responsibility, discipline. They're all words by which the humble McKenry lives.

"I love the weight room,'' he said. "Working out is a passion of mine. I've always had the drive and power in my swing, but the mechanics side had been a little off. I'm still refining my swing. I've spent a lot of time studying video of it this offseason, trying to be the best I can be.''

The Pirates want to put the disappointment of the last two seasons behind them. In both years, they were pennant contenders entering August, but faded in the final two months.

"You fail, you learn, you grow,'' McKenry said philosophically. "I think we grew a lot last year. We're coming back with some veteran [pitching] arms, and we have a great core in the middle of the batting lineup. With those guys, I think we can match up with anybody.''

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