It has taken a long time and a lot of perseverance for Alex McKenney to establish himself as a valuable member of the University of Maine baseball team’s starting rotation.
The redshirt junior from Hampden recently was named the America East Pitcher of the Week for the second time this season after throwing six innings of one-hit ball with six strikeouts in a 15-0 victory over Hartford last weekend.
He ranks second in America East, holding opponents to a .190 batting average, and his six hits allowed per nine innings is 39th in the country among 286 Division I teams.
It has been a long road for McKenney to reach this point.
Three appearances into his freshman season in 2018, McKenney sustained an injury to his right arm that required Tommy John reconstructive surgery.
“I didn’t know if I would ever be the same pitcher again,” McKenney admitted.
He sat out the 2019 season during his recovery and rehabilitation, then endured one disastrous outing in 2020. He allowed five hits, eight runs and three walks with five wild pitches — in two-thirds of an inning.
He had no idea where the ball was going.
But the COVID-19-shortened 13-game 2020 season wasn’t a total loss for McKenney.
He was a good hitter at Hampden Academy and wanted to find a way to contribute, so he talked to head coach Nick Derba about swinging the bat. He served as the designated hitter and batted .250 with two homers and seven runs batted in.
Last summer, he discovered the Missouri-based Premier Pitching and Performance franchise while following Boston Red Sox pitcher Tanner Houck on Instagram.
McKenney picked up a valuable weight training regimen from it and learned a lot about pitching, including the mental aspect. His confidence grew.
“I didn’t want to give up on my ability to pitch,” he said.
McKenney had a productive fall practice season and began pitching like he did at Hampden Academy. He started throwing more strikes.
Early this spring, he gave up a leadoff triple against Binghamton but bore down and didn’t allow the run to score. That gave him another shot of confidence.
McKenney goes into a crucial Friday-Saturday four-game America East series in Orono against Albany with a 4-5 record and a 3.86 earned run average. He has allowed just 28 hits in 42 innings with 34 strikeouts and 21 walks. He has not allowed a home run and has two complete games in seven starts. He has also pitched twice in relief.
He credits his perseverance to his father Travis, who lost part of an arm in a hunting accident when he was 11 years old but still enjoyed an impressive pitching career.
His dad has been an inspiration and Alex said knowing what he overcame has given him the resilience and confidence to deal with his own setbacks.
McKenney is relying primarily on his sinking fastball but is also developing his split-fingered pitch. He is trying to refine his third pitch, a curveball.
“He has been able to throw his fastballs for strikes. He throws it 92-95 mph and it is a heavy ball,” Derba said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he got it up to 98 to 100 miles an hour next year.”
McKenney induces a lot of ground-ball outs with the pitch, which is essentially a “sinker.”
Derba said the splitter has come along nicely over the last three weeks.
“It has complemented his fastball,” Derba said.
McKenney said his father taught him how to throw a splitter in high school because he is a big fan of former Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens.
However, he ditched the pitch at UMaine and replaced it with a curve for his secondary pitch. He reverted to the splitter because of his inconsistency with the curve.
McKenney throws his fastball approximately 75 percent of the time but said he would like his curve to improve to give him a reliable third pitch.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound McKenney and his teammates are looking forward to the Albany series after three victories last weekend put them in control of their own playoff destiny.
With three wins, UMaine will earn a berth in next week’s four-team, double-elimination America East tournament.