McVay, Ruffo take different paths to Pickles' mound
Geographically, Bradley McVay and KJ Ruffo have followed a similar path.
The Portland Pickles pitchers are Milwaukie natives who were teammates at the University of Portland. And, in his own way, each is using this summer to make up for lost time.
The Pickles begin their final regular-season homestand, nine games over 10 days, with a Saturday, July 24 game against the Gresham GreyWolves.
The route to the Pickles' mound was unique for both McVay and Ruffo.
Pitching has been McVay's focus for years. In his third season with the Pickles, he recently took ownership of the franchise record for career strikeouts.
Coming off a decent spring in which McVay went 6-3 with a 3.41 ERA in 63.1 innings for the Pilots, the Milwaukie High grad has entered the transfer portal and isn't yet sure where his next college stop will be. In the meantime, he is one of the regular starters for a Pickles staff for a third summer.
Through July 18, the left-handed McVay was 3-3 in nine appearances with 40 strikeouts in 34 innings and a 3. 17 ERA. In 2019, McVay was one of the top pitchers in the West Coast League with a 2.60 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 45 innings. That strong season came after McVay redshirted as a sophomore at the UP.
In the fall of 2019, he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.
His recovery went well, and McVay was cleared to pitch for the Pilots in 2020 — on the same day that season was cancelled because of COVID-19.
"To be honest, it was really difficult," McVay said. "Not being able to play in 2020 was pretty devastating to me, but I got through it … just kept grinding. That's all you can do, just work hard to get back out on the field … (so) all I did is just use the daily work to distract me."
As he decides where he next will pitch in college, McVay this summer is focused on improving his control. Walks were an issue at times this spring.
McVey noted that he continues to work on his secondary pitch seven years after learning to throw a changeup to complement his fastball. A slider is a more recent addition, one he figures will be a work in progress for years.
McVay said one nice thing about playing in the West Coast League is getting a fresh perspective from Pickles pitching coach Brian Grant.
"Seeing a new perspective and getting that input is really, really nice," he said. "Coach Grant has helped me with my slider, probably the most out of anyone right now, just with the new grip and where I'm putting my thumb."
As much fun as playing for the Pickles can be, every player has the chance to fine-tune things before returning to college baseball.
"This is definitely a little less stress baseball (than college games), so it's nice to go out there and be able to work on different things," McVay said. "Lately I've been working on my slider, messing with grips and trying to find something a little bit more comfortable that I can throw for more strikes, get a little bit more lateral movement."
On July 15, McVay said he didn't yet know where his go-to fastball, secondary changeup pitch and developing slider will next take him.
"It was just me needing something new," McVay said of the decision to leave UP. "That's a great program. I love the coaches there. It was just not the spot for me.
"I could go to the East Coast, the Midwest, California. I've only ever been in Portland."
Ruffo dreamed of being a catcher for a Division I college team. But he wasn't getting any attention from college coaches until a fateful day at a tournament in California during the summer between his junior and senior seasons at Rex Putnam High. His team ran out of healthy pitchers, so Ruffo took a turn on the mound.
Scouts clocked his fastball at 94 mph, and his phone came alive.
"That night, I was on cloud nine. I was like having all these Division I schools call me and email me," Ruffo recalled. "It was incredible."
COVID-19 took away Ruffo's senior high school season, so it wasn't until he arrived at UP last summer that Ruffo was actually coached to be a pitcher.
As a true freshman, he appeared in eight games, going 3 for 10 at the plate. He started behind the plate four times and pitched one scoreless inning in a game against Oregon.
His stuff is fastball heavy. He throws it about 80% of the time because he isn't yet confident in other pitches. He credits UP teammates and pitching coach Connor Lambert for teaching him basics, including the proper way to grip a changeup and slider.
He said the Pilots see his future in pitching, and that's his role in his first season with the Pickles.
Ruffo was a closer several times early in the Pickles season and earned two saves. One of 27 pitchers used by the Pickles, he has allowed seven runs in five innings with five strikeouts in six West Coast League games.
"I was telling some of the guys that I've only really been competitively pitching since last October. It hasn't been a year yet since I've been doing this stuff," Ruffo said.
He's learned there's a lot more to successful pitching than learning about grips and arm angles.
Overuse in that summer before his senior year at Putnam led to a shoulder injury. At UP, he learned the importance of flexibility and strength. Adding 15 pounds helped, too.
"Putting on weight has helped my joints, my muscles — like it just helped me recover faster," Ruffo said, noting, too, that he never knew the value of plyometrics or yoga until he arrived at UP.
Catching and pitching require different muscles, too.
Ruffo said pitching an inning at a time with the Pickles makes it difficult to find a rhythm on the mound, but the experience is important even if the Pilots view him as a potential starting pitcher.
"The one thing I do need to work on is my stamina," Ruffo said. "I need to be able to get through more than two innings if they want me to start."
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