McKenna accepts role as emergency relief pitcher

Adley Rutschman didn’t put down any fingers for Ryan McKenna in the ninth inning of Monday night’s game against the Tigers. The rookie was catching an outfielder with their team behind by nine runs. The usual routine already had been dismantled.

Just try to get the ball over the plate and get off the field. Don’t increase the embarrassment of a lopsided loss to a last-place club that dragged an anemic offense into Camden Yards.

McKenna didn’t think to jokingly shake off Rutschman and get inside the hitters’ heads a little bit. A funny idea that he hopes won’t present itself again this season.

Two trips to the mound are too many for a position player.

McKenna hadn’t pitched since his high school days at St. Thomas Aquinas in New Hampshire, describing his usage has “very minimal,” but bench coach Fredi González approached him in the dugout during a Sept. 10 game against the Red Sox at Camden Yards and asked whether he’d be willing to do it with the Orioles running out of pitching.

In this instance, it just took a position change.

McKenna pinch-hit for Anthony Santander in the bottom of the eighth inning and replaced him in right field in the ninth. He was summoned to the mound with the bases loaded and two outs, after the Red Sox scored three more runs.

This is the last we’d see of Yennier Canó. He was optioned the following day.

McKenna got the last out, but only after walking J.D. Martinez and giving up RBI singles to Christian Arroyo and Kiké Hernández. Kevin Plawecki grounded out, and McKenna’s ERA held at 0.00.

(Plawecki was designated for assignment over the weekend, but I don’t think his groundout was the reason.)

The Orioles lost 17-4 and the use of a position player didn’t require an explanation. Canó was toast. But McKenna’s appearance Monday night came as more of a surprise with Mike Baumann throwing 35 pitches in two innings and retiring the side in order in the eighth, including two strikeouts with the Tigers ahead 9-0.

McKenna walked from the dugout to the rubber. Kerry Carpenter singled and moved to third base on Spencer Torkelson’s automatic double. Sacrifice flies from Jonathan Schoop and Ryan Kreidler plated two runs, Tucker Barnhart singled and Akil Baddoo flied out to left.

Rutschman jogged to the first base line to greet McKenna, his standard move with a pitcher, and both men smiled. McKenna’s ERA leapt to 13.50.

“He was like, ‘Well, I think your ERA took a little ding there,’ which was just keeping it light,” McKenna said.  

I know Shohei Ohtani (not really). He’s no Shohei Ohtani (really).

That’s OK. Manager Brandon Hyde credited McKenna for saving the bullpen. Baumann wasn’t optioned yesterday, so the Orioles can get him back quicker after a 35-pitch outing if that’s their desire.

“As a guy who’s trying to observe the game as much as I can, I wasn’t surprised, because I always think about what could happen and whatnot,” McKenna said. “I know we’ve got some stuff going on the rest of the season where we’re trying to win every game and every one’s important, so if we can save our guys … I wasn’t surprised.”

Per the new collective bargaining agreement, only players designated as pitchers are allowed to pitch unless either team is ahead by seven or more runs, the game is in extra innings, or a player has earned “two-way” status.

Utility player Chris Owings allowed one run in the ninth inning of a 10-0 loss to the Mariners on May 31. The Orioles released him on June 12 and he signed with the Yankees six days later.

McKenna has become the emergency reliever of choice. He began to throw in the tunnel during an earlier game this season, but the Orioles got out of the inning without using him. Now he’s pitched twice in a span of eight games before last night.

“Honestly, Fredi just asked the first time,” he said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, if it saves an arm for our ‘pen. Obviously it sucks because we’re not winning the game, but it’s just something that’s kind of necessary in the rules that we’ve got going on right now. If it helps the team, saves the arms for today and tomorrow and the rest of the season, then I’m all for it.”

“It’s the one guy that you know won’t be scared and is an accurate thrower,” Hyde said, “but you never know what it’s going to look like when you put him out there. He throws strikes. He gets hit around a little bit, but probably because he throws so many strikes kind of at batting practice speed.

“We’ve either got to slow it down or speed it up a little bit. One of the two.”

Hyde was also keeping it light.

McKenna doesn’t requite much notice, which is good because how much can be expected under the circumstances? A game gets far out of reach, the bullpen thins and, presto, it’s time to make a move that every manager dreads.

González told McKenna Monday night that if Baumann’s pitch count kept rising, he’d be handed the ninth inning.

“I was like, ‘All right, that’s fine,’” McKenna said. “I just throw in the tunnel a little bit and then once the ninth comes around, just go in and try to do what you can.”

Nothing fancy, of course.

“Just straight, try to play catch with Adley. Throw strikes and hopefully they get themselves out,” he said.

“I think there was one the first time when I was facing J.D., I had him at two strikes and I tried to put a little more on it and I walked him, so I was like, ‘All right, I can’t be doing anything too crazy out here.’”

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