McGonigle ‘loved’ Tigers initiation, and the Tigers like his early hitting

Detroit News

He was into this professional baseball thing, Kevin McGonigle was.

You could tell it from the outset.

He showed up in July at Lakeland, Fla., a few weeks after pocketing his high-school diploma, began hitting crisply with the Florida Complex League Tigers (.273/.467/.333/.800), then really showed off during a 12-game audition with the low-Single A Lakeland Flying Tigers, which wrapped up Friday.

McGonigle’s numbers for Lakeland: .350 batting average, .438 on-base percentage, .903 OPS, with a home run, to boot.

He struck out five times in 45 plate appearances. He had 11 walks. And all after he turned 19 on Aug. 18.

It hints at why those gaudy phrases — “pure hitter” and “professional hitter” — were tossed around after the Tigers drafted McGonigle, 37th overall, in this summer’s MLB Draft.

A left-handed batter who plays shortstop and who measures 5-foot 10, 187 pounds, showed why the Tigers were keen on parceling out their draft-bonus allowance in ways that would allow them to score on three potentially big bats with their top three picks:

Max Clark, Max Anderson, and McGonigle, who four months ago was playing baseball for Monsignor Bonner High, in Drexel Hill, Pa., and who needed a cash offer heavy enough ($2.85 million) to spur turning down his scholarship from Auburn.

“I loved it,” McGonigle said Saturday of his pro-ball baptism, a few hours after he had flown home for a short break before Tigers Instructional Camp begins later this week at Lakeland. “The friendships already made, only two months in. The coaching staff, of course, and Andrew Graham (Lakeland manager) is the best.

“It was truly a great time. It’s definitely where I belong.”

His biggest takeaway from 60 days of baseball farm life?

“I was always told before getting drafted that in the minor leagues no one really wants to win,” McGonigle said. “But I thought it was completely opposite on the Flying Tigers. We really came together. And that playoff run (Lakeland finished 44-22 to make the playoffs, losing in three games to Clearwater) was truly a great time.

“We had a great run.”

Among multiple-choice options, what pleased the Tigers most was, of course, McGonigle’s left-handed stroke.

He wasn’t overmatched on the FCL back lots. More tellingly, he did even better against older and more sophisticated Florida State League pitching.

“Definitely, low-A (Lakeland) pitchers had a lot more control,” McGonigle said. “A lot of those pitchers in FCL, they threw hard but they didn’t know where it was going.”

That all changed once he moved across the TigerTown tract to Publix Field/Marchant Stadium. Better control, even better fastballs — and a passel of secondary pitches were on the nightly menu.

None of it surprised McGonigle.

“Not really,” he said. “I’ve been playing baseball my whole life, so I just try and be comfortable in any situation. I’ve been playing the game since I was three years old.

“The pitching was a little tougher than in high school. I had seen some good arms through the summer circuit (travel teams, against high-gear talent), but the way I think about it, it’s just another baseball going over the plate. You’ve got to time it up.

“You could tell a lot of these guys (low-A) were really talented. A lot of those guys can hit every spot. I haven’t seen that any point in my whole life. They’re tough pitches when they hit their spots, and sometimes you just have to tip your cap.

“But if you get a chance to foul one off, or get the barrel out and smoke it down the line or in the gap, that’s what’s fun.”

He mentioned Friday night’s tough 2-1 loss to Clearwater, which ended Lakeland’s season.

He had struck out twice — two of his five whiffs in those 12 games for the Flying Tigers — and came to bat in the ninth in a one-run game.

“I just left it behind me,” McGonigle said, speaking of a rare 0-for-4 start. “It was a big at-bat, and I tried to get on base and just forget about the early stuff. I got a single through the left side on an outside slider.”

Lessons. Every day there was a new lesson, tied to so many facets of a game so complex.

“The biggest things I’ve learned have been things like baserunning, situational hitting, and defense,” McGonigle said. “I know there are going to be struggles. It happens. I’m just going to keep my head down, work hard, and whatever happens, happens.

“There are a lot of things I need to work on, of course. A lot of it’s on the strength side, but that’s what the offseason is for.”

How long McGonigle sticks at shortstop is an ongoing question. The probability he moves to second base is high, not only because his arm figures to play better there, but because the Tigers need also to groom other shortstops, two of whom also were snagged in July’s draft: Jim Jarvis and John Peck, who rotated with McGonigle during his Lakeland stint.

“Of course, I’d prefer that position,” McGonigle said of short, “but I’m just grateful to be on the field, no matter where I’m playing.”

Good answer.

McGonigle wasn’t finished. He was tempted, so tempted, he said, to opt for that Auburn experience and postpone his professional baseball baptism by at least three years.

He thinks good judgment won out.

“Yeah, I mean, at the time, I was 18 years old, and here was a big decision to make about life,” he said. “I just went with my heart.

“I knew professional baseball was the right move. I was excited to go.

“And now I’m ready for spring training next year.”

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