McKenna happy for Kjerstad and hoping to rejoin him in majors

The coincidence didn’t hit Ryan McKenna right away. He was in a brightly lit airport in Norfolk but also in the dark.

McKenna had no clue that Austin Hays strained a calf muscle and the Orioles needed an outfielder to replace him. He missed the news, which perhaps would have taken his mind in a direction that raised hopes for a return to the majors.

Instead, McKenna stood next to Heston Kjerstad when one of baseball’s top prospects received a phone call from Tides manager Buck Britton. Get back on a plane and head to Anaheim. The Orioles are calling you up.

“To be honest, I didn’t see the injury to Hays, so I wasn’t like fully aware of what was going on,” McKenna said this week.

“I love Heston, man. He’s such a good player. He’s going to be a good major leaguer for a long time, so I was super happy for him. He’s probably one of the guys that I’m closest to in the minor leagues. It was cool. He’s a solid player. Offensively, he outshines this league pretty dramatically.”

McKenna didn’t know who was on the other end of that call, only that his friend was leaving.

“He just said he was trying to catch a flight back to California,” McKenna said. “He had to get his stuff.”

The Orioles carried McKenna on their camp roster until leaving Sarasota. They designated him for assignment on Opening Day, though news leaked during the last exhibition game.

The experience was new to McKenna, who finally ran out of minor league options after riding the Triple-A shuttle for chunks of his three major league seasons. He cleared waivers and was outrighted.

“It was definitely a little different, just kind of more unknown,” he said. “Obviously, in the past it’s like you have a pretty clear avenue of what the next month or the start of the season looks like. Just had to be patient. I ended up going back home for a couple days and hanging out with family. That was actually kind of a little blessing. But just being ready if a team claimed me, and if not, then look what both sides of the coin looks like.”

One side was the disappointment of missing out on a major league job. The other side was comfort in staying with the organization that drafted him in the fourth round in 2015.

That one was more of a consolation prize, his love for the Orioles softening his landing spot, making it less painful.

“Obviously, for your own career, being in the big leagues is where you want to be,” he said. “I’m very familiar, been here for a long time in the Orioles organization. I’ve enjoyed it and definitely looking forward to helping them win. But if there’s another team out there that saw value in me and wanted to claim me, I’d be more than ready to play for them and get after it and take advantage of another opportunity with another team.”

McKenna appeared much closer to making the club in spring training after the Orioles reassigned Jackson Holliday and released Kolten Wong. They seemed ready to carry an extra outfielder. The final bench spot came down to McKenna and Tyler Nevin, until it didn’t.

They kept Colton Cowser despite his 3-for-23 finish, which proved to be a smart decision. Nevin was designated for assignment on the workout day, with the Orioles signing left-handed hitting second baseman Tony Kemp.

In McKenna’s favor were his speed, defense at every outfield spot and energy in the dugout. A team-first guy and positive clubhouse influence. And he had a strong, vocal supporter in manager Brandon Hyde. But McKenna went 5-for-37 in camp, the numbers mattering more for him than others, and running dry on options didn’t allow him to immediately stay.

“When Mike (Elias) ended up telling me I wasn’t going to make the Opening Day roster, I had the same mentality throughout camp, I was expecting another year in Baltimore and ready to go,” McKenna said. “The spring performance-wise wasn’t really my best but I’ve been around the game a while and just knowing it takes time to kind of get your feel back into the game. Thirty or 40 at-bats isn’t something that you can dictate your whole season on. For me, just mentally. But I was ready for another year, I was feeling optimistic. But you’ve got to just roll with the punches as they come at you.”

Elias and assistant general manager Eve Rosenbaum spoke with McKenna on his final day. And McKenna already knew that Hyde held him in high regard.

“They expressed obviously that it was a hard decision and how the organization feels about me, and the feeling’s definitely mutual,” McKenna said. “I’ve been very blessed to have an opportunity here, and no matter what that looks like, I’ve been very excited and just ready to go whenever they needed me. But yeah, it was hard, it was hard to hear, and I could tell it was hard to tell me that themselves.

“It’s part of the game. They pretty much said it’s not an easy job that they have and I get it. I understand the game and how the inner workings work. After that, it was just seeing what logistically needed to be done for me and just take it day by day.”

McKenna doubled, walked twice and scored a run Tuesday and had a hit in four consecutive games before last night, including Monday’s home run. He was 6-for-18 with two doubles and a homer in his first four games before an 0-for-11 stretch in the next three.

“It’s just getting those everyday at-bats, and continuing to just stay in a good frame of mind and getting in good positions to hit and just being ready to hit for me has always been a big thing to focus on,” he said. "Just continue to get some hits and obviously hit the ball hard. Things are feeling good and ready to take it on tonight and continue to see what happens here.”

McKenna also sees what’s going on in Baltimore and on the trips. The Orioles were leading the American League in runs, slugging percentage and OPS yesterday and the majors in home runs, and they were only a half-game behind the Yankees in the division race.

“Those are guys that I’m really close to, so I always like seeing them do well, and I’m rooting for them every night,” McKenna said.

“Good baseball in Baltimore is good for everybody.”

He could be the one unpacking his bags and getting hugs later this season, hearing the unexpected news on his phone wherever he’s standing.

“I’m definitely ready if that call happens and they need me,” he said. “If they need me, I’m going to be ready and see what that kind of looks like. Anything can happen, really.”

Just ask Kjerstad. Or the guy next to him at the airport.

“I think just continuing to be himself and continue the success he had last year and build on that experience is what he’s going to do,” McKenna said. “He’s a great clubhouse guy. He’s going to keep it light. He’s always the same guy. Doesn’t get too high and too low.”

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