Published: 12:00 AM, Thu May 24, 2012
Jack Britt alum Kevin McKague helps Army win Patriot League title as standout closer and slugger
For Army senior Kevin McKague, baseball games have long been nine innings of learning.
From his usual spot at first base, he said he studies the tendencies and swings of opposing hitters. He's able to put that to use when he takes the mound as the Black Knights' closer.
No moment on the field is wasted.
When, a little more than a year ago, a searing pain began shooting from his lower back - pain so bad he couldn't walk straight - he was robbed of his time on the diamond. But his study of the game never stopped.
Now fully healthy, that education is paying off as McKague helped guide Army to a Patriot League title and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
Check one of the Black Knights' box scores this season, and the former Jack Britt High School standout will likely be hard to miss.
Entrenched in the middle of the batting order, the 6-foot-5 McKague is the team's most dangerous offensive weapon. As the team's closer, he's equally at home in his role as its dominating last word.
A 50th-round pick of the Atlanta Braves last season, McKague will likely be selected again this season. Of course, any pro career will have to wait until he finishes a two-year military commitment.
He's has a fastball that tops out in the mid-90s, a slider that touches the high 80s and the Patriot League's most feared bat. Army coach Joe Sottolano said about the only thing he doesn't do well is run. Sottolano called his speed on the base paths "average."
"It's fine," Sottolano said. "He's 6-5, 240, he's probably not going to be able to run much better."
Sottolano, who's been on the Black Knights' staff for more than two decades, isn't afraid to heap heavy praise on McKague, who was named the Patriot League's Player of the Year earlier this month.
"He ranks among the best players to ever come through the program, without question," Sottolano said. "He's a very talented young man, a very good athlete and a great competitor."
Still on course
His final season is charting the same productive course as his previous ones, each of which ended with an all-conference nod.
But he was roughly a dozen games into last season - which was supposed to be his senior campaign - when pain from a bulging disc in his back appeared suddenly and never relented. His season was done.
He would eventually need two surgeries and a waiver from the NCAA to set up a fifth season. But in the wake of the injury last spring, all he could do was sit and watch.
"It was tough," McKague said. "It was definitely a learning experience for me. I didn't know if my baseball days were over. It was the first time that I've had to watch from the sidelines."
McKague said he threw himself into the nuances of the game, studying game situations, coaching decisions and the interplay within a team.
"The game is played with a rhythm," McKague said. "That dictates what you do."
This season, with a healthy back and keen new understanding of the game, McKague has made the most of his second shot at a senior season. He leads the team in batting average, RBIs and home runs. He also has the lowest earned run average.
"I'd always say you had to play each day like it was your last," McKague said. "You never really knew. . I knew that this is where I wanted to come back to."
Staff writer Stephen Schramm can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3536.