McKay faces first hitters since '22 amid long road back to MLB

February 20th, 2024

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Having thrown his last pitch of the day, smiled and shook hands with a few of the coaches, officials and players who had gathered around Field 2 at Charlotte Sports Park on Tuesday morning. Rays manager Kevin Cash jogged to the mound and gave McKay a high-five, celebrating a big moment for the 28-year-old left-hander.

It was just one live batting practice session during the second full-squad workout of Spring Training. For McKay, it meant much more than that. It was the first time the former top prospect had pitched to hitters since Aug. 18, 2022.

Asked how he felt after walking off the mound, McKay smiled.

“Amazing,” he said. “Over the past three, four years, that’s probably the most consistent I’ve felt. Just happy to be out here.”

It’s an understandable sentiment for McKay, the former fourth overall pick in the 2017 Draft who last pitched in the Majors in 2019 and hasn’t pitched in a Minor League game in a year and a half. Since making his big league debut at age 23, he has undergone left shoulder surgery (August 2020), thoracic outlet syndrome surgery (after the 2021 season) and Tommy John surgery (September 2022).

Now 28, McKay is no longer a two-way top prospect. He stopped hitting after the second operation. He’s in camp as a non-roster invitee, as he was released in November 2022 and re-signed with Tampa Bay on a two-year Minor League contract about a month later. That allowed him to spend last season rehabbing, but also opened the door for a return this spring.

“There were plenty of days in the early couple years where you're like, 'Damn, I don't want to do this anymore.' It gets monotonous doing the same rehab every day for a couple years,” he said. “To finally get out here and be a little bit free feels good.”

McKay said he felt good in the final two bullpen sessions he threw last year before shutting it down for the winter. He’s been happy with his work so far in camp. But none of that compared to the feedback of facing hitters in a competitive environment, even live batting practice.

“Today’s a big day and a good step forward of building that confidence back and setting some wheels in motion, like, hey, let’s keep pushing the pedal and get better every day,” McKay said.

McKay threw fastballs, curveballs and changeups while facing Randy Arozarena, Harold Ramírez and René Pinto, inducing a couple awkward swings and whiffs. He still has a long road ahead, given the injuries he’s dealt with and the time he’s missed, but the Rays’ support was evident in the number of people who came to watch the lefty pitch and congratulated him after he was done.

“It shows that there’s some sort of trust, and that they want me to be there and be an option at some point in the year,” McKay said.

“That was really cool,” Cash added. “Kind of another step in the right direction. Still a lot that he's going to continue to build off, but it's nice to have him go out there and do that in that setting and feel good walking off the mound.”

Around the horn

• Center fielder Jose Siri reported to camp on Tuesday and worked out on the field after being slightly delayed by visa issues. He played winter ball in the Dominican Republic before taking some time off but said he’s in good shape and preparing to play a full, healthy season.

• Second baseman Brandon Lowe, who missed Monday’s first full-squad workout, remained sidelined due to an illness.

• In addition to McKay, 10 other pitchers threw live batting practice on Tuesday: Joe Record, Justin Sterner, Edwin Uceta, Michael Gomez, Enmanuel Mejia, Trevor Brigden, Antonio Jimenez, Kevin Kelly, Nathan Wiles and Burch Smith. Gomez and Smith were particularly impressive, Cash said.

• Bally Sports Sun announced the Rays’ Spring Training broadcast schedule, featuring 10 Grapefruit League games at Charlotte Sports Park available on the network and streaming on the Bally Sports app.

Their coverage begins with the Rays’ game against the Tigers on Sunday. The network will also air games on Feb. 27 (Yankees), March 4 (Pirates), March 7 (Phillies), March 11 (Blue Jays), March 13 (Twins), March 15 (Orioles), March 18 (Braves), March 22 (Twins) and March 23 (Orioles), with each of those games starting at 1 p.m. ET.