By STEVE KRAH
Michael McAvene is doing his best to keep the momentum rolling in his baseball career.
The right-handed pitcher had to push the pause button during his high school and college days because of injury and now he’s at a standstill period as a professional because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down Minor League Baseball in 2020.
McAvene is a 2016 graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis, playing for three head coaches. He made a few varsity appearances as a freshman for Keith Hatfield in 2013, even more as a sophomore for Daron Spink in 2014, missed his junior season with the Rebels with elbow issues in 2015 and was part of an IHSAA Class 4A state championship team as a senior for Aaron Kroll in 2016.
As a University of Louisville freshman in the spring of 2017, McAvene was hurt in an April relief stint and soon found himself on the operating table. His next pitch in a collegiate game came April 2018.
After getting into seven games (five as a starter) and going 1-1 with a 4.15 ERA, 26 strikeouts and 15 walks in 17 1/3 innings as a U of L freshman, McAvene went to the bullpen when he came back from his surgery.
The righty made 34 appearances out of the bullpen his last two collegiate seasons, going 2-1 with nine saves, a 3.32 earned run average, 65 strikeouts and 18 walks in 43 1/3 innings. He was named second team all-Atlantic Coast Conference in 2019.
The Cardinals qualified for the NCAA Tournament 2017-19 and went to the College World Series in 2017 and 2019.
U of L was ranked No. 1 in the nation during part of that stretch and McAvene was labeled as the team’s closer during the end of that run.
“I loved it,” says McAvene. “You have to have a certain mentality for (that role).
“It came easy for me to get the last out of the game, which in my opinion is the last out to get.”
It was while going for that last out that McAvene received an automative four-game suspension following his ejection for disputing an umpire’s decision in NCAA regional victory over Indiana University.
He counts it as part of his experience.
“I definitely didn’t want to talk about it (immediately after the game),” says McAvene. “But you’ve got to be professional and not let emotions get in the way.”
McAvene cherished the atmosphere created at Louisville by head coach Dan McDonnell and pitching coach Roger Williams.
“(McDonnell) gets you to the point where you’d run through a wall for him and your teammates,” says McAvene. “That’s the culture.
“It’s a testament to the players and the type of people he brings in.”
Williams pushed his pitchers.
“He taught me what it takes to be successful at this level,” says McAvene of Williams. “He’s a very challenging guy. He expects us to be on top of our games at all times. He won’t accept less. He made us accountable.
“When it’s your time, you’re all that’s out there. You have to execute and do all you can to get your team to win.”
McAvene says Williams is one of the best game callers in the country and his scouting reports are second to none.
“(McDonnell and Williams are) two of the most legendary coaches in the history of college baseball and they’re just starting,” says McAvene, who was selected in the third round of the 2019 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs.
Appearing in six games with the 2019 Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds, he went 0-0 with a 1.42 ERA, 20 strikeouts and four walks in 12 2/3 innings. Of 199 pitches, 126 were thrown for strikes.
The way the organization is currently formed, the next step on the ladder would be with the South Bend (Ind.) Cubs.
McAvene faced some hitters before spring training and he’s since had some competitive bullpen sessions while following the program laid out by the Cubs. He just hasn’t delivered a pitch in a game since Aug. 31, 2019.
“I have a pretty good player plan sent out by the Cubs,” says McAvene. “I just can’t replicate in-game reps.”
While some of his former Louisville teammates have been involved in the four-team Battle of the Bourbon Trail independent league in Florence and Lexington, McAvene has stayed in central Indiana to train.
The McAvenes family — Rob, Jennifer, Michael and Bradley — lived for years near Camby, near Mooresville, and now reside in Danville.
It’s about a 10-minute trip to Plainfield to work out at the home of his former Ben Davis Little League and Indiana Outlaws travel coach, Jay Hundley, along with pros Jacson McGowan (who played at Brownsburg High School and Purdue University and is now in the Tampa Bay Rays system) and Nick Schnell (who was Indiana Mr. Baseball at Roncalli in 2018 and is also with the Rays), Indiana University left-hander Zach Behrmann (Indianapolis North Central graduate) and others.
McAvene was able to retire most high school hitters with a fastball and a breaking ball.
While starting at Louisville, he began to get a feel for a change-up. When he went to the back of the Cards’ pen, he used a fastball, slider and curveball and, essentially, shelved the change-up on the shelf.
Given a chance to return to starting with the Cubs, McAvene again began working to get comfortable with throwing a “circle” change — a grip taught to him by a friend while he was with the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod Baseball League in the summer of 2018.
“I knew my curveball and my slider were only going to get me so far,” says McAvene. “The change-up sets apart good players from great players.”
Throwing from a low three-quarter arm angle, McAvene throws more two-seam fastballs than four-seamers.
“It has a sinker action,” says McAvene of the two-seamer that registers as a sinker on Cubs’ analytic equipment like Rapsodo and TrackMan. “My arm slot allows for a lot of downward action on it.
“I wanted to make sure I’ve got some lateral movement on it. The sink is an added bonus.”
McAvene’s curve has morphed. He used to throw the pitch in the traditional manner with a sweeping motion.
“I switched the grip to a knuckle curve to get more depth,” says McAvene. “It pairs well with my fastball and slider.”
As for the slider, McAvene was throwing it at Eugene at 86 to 90 mph.
“It has a very hard and tight break,” says McAvene of the slider. “The movement is late and right at the very end.”
After the 2019 season, McAvene finished his Sports Administration degree, graduating magna cum laude in December.
McAvene, who turned 23 on Aug. 24, says he was hopeful that there might be fall instructional league with the Cubs this year. But since it’s already September and Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball are still figuring out the terms of their agreement, that looks improbable.
Born in the same Indianapolis hospital where his mother has spent 30 years as an ICU nurse (IU Health University), McAvene grew up in the Mooresville area. He was an Mooresville Little League all-star from 9 to 11 — the last two with his father as coach (Rob McAvene is now an independent distributor for Pepperidge Farms) — before his one year at Ben Davis Little League.
Before attending Roncalli, Michael spent Grades K-6 at North Madison Elementary in Camby and middle school at Saint Mark Catholic School on the south side of Indianapolis.
Bradley McAvene (18) is a 2020 graduate of Indiana Connections Academy.