Alex McKenney pitches for the University of Maine against Albany during a May 2021 series in Orono. Credit: Tyler Neville / UMaine athletics

Former Hampden Academy and University of Maine pitcher Alex McKenney had an impressive professional debut for the Philadelphia Phillies’ low Class-A Clearwater (Florida) Threshers of the Southeast League.

He signed a free agent contract with the National League team in July.

He appeared in nine games with one start and was 2-1 with a 1.56 earned-run average over 17 1/3 innings. He struck out 17 and didn’t allow an earned run in seven of his nine appearances.

Opponents hit just .172 against him.

He walked 10 and hit seven.

“I was pleased with it,” the 22-year-old McKenney said. “It was a good first step as I got myself introduced to the lifestyle of being a pro. This is my career now.”

The team limited the pitch counts to protect the pitchers, the right-hander said, and the most pitches he ever threw in an outing was 65.

McKenney is going to spend the month of October in the Phillies’ instructional camp in Clearwater working on a variety of things under the watchful eye of the coaches and a video team.

They videotape him throwing a pitch and will break it down for him technically. Among things being analyzed are his grip on the ball, his release point and the spin rate on the ball.

“We are working on my slider right now. They want me to become more comfortable throwing it so I can throw it at any time,” McKenney said. “They want me to be able to throw it for strikes and to be able to throw it out of the strike zone but still get swings and misses off it.”

He used to throw a curve, but he said the Phillies organization feels the slider complements his sinking fastball more effectively than a curve. The two pitches “work off each other better” than his fastball and curve, he said.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound McKenney had a lot of success with his sinking fastball, which ranged from 93 to 96 mph, along with his split-fingered pitch. His splitty is another pitch with late downward movement.

“I worked in the bottom of the [strike] zone a lot,” he said.

McKenney was able to get ahead in counts with his fastball and didn’t give up many hard-hit balls off it. The sinking movement on it forced hitters to hit ground balls that resulted in double plays, he added.

He got a lot of strikeouts with his splitty, he said.

He occasionally struggled with the command of his pitches as evidenced by his 10 walks and seven hit batters.

If McKenney can develop a good slider, he is “going to pitch for a long time” and could make it to the major leagues, UMaine head baseball coach Nick Derba said.        

“His fastball has a lot of life. … When he throws it 94 miles an hour, it looks like it’s 98,” said Derba, a former AAA catcher.

McKenney said they go from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. six days a week and have Sundays off.

He will return to Maine in November and work at The Edge Academy in Portland, a baseball-softball instructional facility formerly known as Frozen Ropes, and also throw and work out in preparation for next season.

Due to Tommy John surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic, McKenney had thrown just 6 2/3 innings for the Black Bears until this past spring, when he went 4-6 with a 3.67 ERA over 56 1/3 innings.

He allowed only one home run and held opponents to a .214 batting average. He was a two-time America East Pitcher of the Week and was chosen to the All-AE tournament team after allowing just two unearned runs over 8 ⅓ innings of a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology.