There was quite the shake up in the most recent NCBWA Top 25 this past week. While the top five teams remained the same (albeit with a minor flip flop), five new teams cracked the Top 25 that weren’t previously ranked. The Mercyhurst Lakers — riding a five-game winning streak — was one of them, appearing at No. 24.
Mercyhurst, of course, is no stranger to national attention. Last season was their fifth straight season that Joe Spano — the all-time winningest head coach in the program’s history — racked up 30 or more wins at the helms of the Lakers.
2015 was also a year of firsts for Mercyhurst. They won their first Atlantic Region championship in program history, making their first national finals in the process. Once in Cary, they won their first ever finals game.
Colin McKee — their now red-shirt junior right-handed ace — started that first game for the Lakers last season in Cary. He pitched well into the seventh inning, but would get the no decision. The Lakers would win in dramatic fashion with two runs in the top of the 11th before Jake Hall shut it down in the bottom of the inning for the victory.
They would drop their next two, ending their dream season, but not before they took away some invaluable experience that only readied them for another hopeful championship run.“Last season was an unreal experience with a great group of guys,” McKee said. “Pitching our opening game of the NCAA championships was something I will always remember. As a team, we definitely approached this off-season with the goal of building on last season’s success and finishing as the best team in the country. Being in Cary last year, and playing against the other top teams in the nation showed me that we have the talent to achieve that goal. “
McKee has become one of the premier pitching prospects in Division II. He has the frame scouts ogle over standing at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. He also has an electric arsenal that is both effective and incredibly hard to hit. McKee currently has 72 strikeouts on the season and his 15.07 per nine strikeout rate is second in the nation.
“This season, I have been able to utilize all four pitches in most counts with confidence to keep batters off-balance,” McKee said. “For me, everything works off of my fastball, which I have been able to throw to both sides of the plate consistently. My slider was a new pitch for me last season and in the last year it has developed into my main out pitch. I have been able to command it inside and outside of the strike zone. My curveball and changeup have been effective off-speed pitches for me to use in different situations against both left and right handed batters.”
McKee wasn’t always Mercyhurst’s ace. His journey to the top of the rotation began in the bullpen, where he became the team’s closer in his sophomore season. He led the team in saves that year, before making the transition to starter in 2015.
His first go in the rotation was more than the Lakers could have hoped for. McKee went 7-2 with a Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference best ERA of 1.78 as well as a PSAC best 98 strikeouts in 70.2 innings pitched. McKee made transitioning from one role to the other look pretty easy.
“I took the mentality of coming out of the bullpen to starting,” McKee said. “I just try to take the game one pitch at a time and make each pitch with a purpose. As a closer, I tried to be very aggressive and attack hitters with my best stuff. I have tried to do that as a starter by setting a tone early in games by coming right at batters with everything I have.”
McKee certainly garnered the eyes of many after a strong performance in the postseason in which he went 2-0 with a 0.87 ERA while striking out 30 over 20.2 innings pitched. He earned Pre-Season All-American honors from both the NCBWA and Collegiate Baseball Newspaper as well as landing on top Division II prospect lists by both Baseball America (No. 6, where he is joined by fellow PSAC righty Brandon Miller of Millersville at No. 10) and Perfect Game (No. 36).
Thus far, his game seems to have reached a new level and he may even be exceeding those lofty preseason expectations. McKee currently sits at 4-1 with a 1.05 ERA (good for 12th in the nation) with all of those strikeouts mentioned earlier. More remarkably, he has walked just nine batters in his first 43 inning of the season. His 72 strikeouts are tops in the PSAC and fifth most in all of DII.“I definitely came into this season with a higher level of confidence,” McKee said. “I really trusted that the way I prepared my body throughout the fall and winter would pay off once games began this spring. With this being my second year as a starter I knew what I needed to improve on from my first year. A major key for me this year has been my ability to command all of my pitches with greater consistency and keeping to maintain that consistency later into my outings. Also, playing in the New England Collegiate Baseball League this summer gave me confidence entering this season.”
McKee isn’t alone however. The Lakers have the luxury of having a staff of familiar faces. Senior righty Cam Knott has also seen his game improve, currently sitting at 5-1 with a 1.70 ERA, fifth best in the PSAC. Knott, like McKee had a start in Cary last year and carried that momentum into this season. He also had the honor of pitching in one of the program’s more memorable games this season, claiming the win in his head coach’s 500th career victory with Mercyhurst.
Senior Jake Hall — who has turned around his season after struggling out of the gates — comes out of the bullpen also with the moxie of winning a game in the national championships, anchoring a staff that also has experience going deep into the season and pitching on DII’s biggest stage.
“As a whole, the entire pitching staff has great chemistry,” McKee said. “Having Cam and Joe [Gnacinski] in the rotation with me gives me great confidence entering a series that the team will be getting some quality innings from our starters. We also have a bullpen, featuring some very experienced collegiate arms like Jake Hall and Ben Nolan, that all of the starters feel confident handing the ball to late in games.”
Where Mercyhurst winds up will rely heavily upon McKee and their pitching staff. While they have a nice offense, one that is batting a combined .313 with 25 total home runs, this is a team that has prided themselves on solid fundamentals as evidenced by their PSAC best .976 fielding percentage, which is also tied for fifth in the nation. This rotation’s 3.51 is third in the PSAC while their 216 strikeouts are second most.
Tough match-ups remain against Gannon and California, but the Lakers fate may very well be in their owns hands. McKee and his rotation mates will play a large role in seeing if they are Cary-bound yet again.