HOUSTON -- A year ago, he was the focal point at the Pirates fulcrum, for all the wrong reasons. The Fort's fortunes have turned. On Friday night, Michael McKenry wasn't in the floodlights for the tag he had missed -- although this time he actually did miss Justin Maxwell on a key second-inning play. Twice, in fact. This time, people wanted to talk to him about contributing three big hits to a 6-5 victory over the Astros that kept this Pirates season on the straightaway -- and only 366 days after his 19th-inning missed (at least according to umpire Jerry Meals) tag of Atlanta's Julio Lugo had sent the last Pirates season careening off the road. McKenry doesn't have the most hits among the Bucs. As someone who starts maybe one game out of three, he couldn't. But the popular catcher may have as many big, game-changing knocks as anyone. The Pirates had four run-producing hits in Friday's win, and he ignited three of them: Homer in the fifth, double in the seventh, single in the ninth.
Those three hits improved McKenry's season take to nine home runs and 22 RBIs in 120 at-bats, with an OPS of .907. Eye-catching for a 27-year-old who entered this season with two homers and 11 RBIs in a total of 188 at-bats. "A lot of hard work," said McKenry, who in Spring Training was rarely seen without a bat in his hands or a perspiration-stained shirt on his back, in trying to explain the improvement. "And then not trying to do too much. Just playing the game for what it is. I keep remembering something I was always told when I was younger: Remember what the ground smells like. "Just go out and play. Too often, we try to make it into more than it is." McKenry has earned a more integral role in the Pirates' scheme by taking huge advantage of an opportunity: Since a left-knee bruise to regular catcher Rod Barajas in late June made him a lineup fixture for a week, The Fort has hit .392, with six homers and 16 RBIs, in 17 games. The Pirates are 12-5 in those games.