LAKEWOOD – Life in the Minor Leagues is often an eye-opening experience for young baseball players and a significant part of the rude awakening are those bus rides.

The Lexington Legends – the Class-A affiliate of the defending World Champion Kansas City Royals – sat through a 12-hour bus ride to travel north to Lakewood for a three-game series against the BlueClaws that concludes Wednesday afternoon. There was, however, one member of the team who looked forward to that particular bus ride.

Mark McCoy, a left-handed reliever and former standout at Rutgers University and Barnegat High School, pitched his first game as a professional in front of a group of family and friends in a 9-5 loss to Lakewood. In one inning of work, McCoy allowed one earned run on three hits and a walk while notching a strikeout.

Former Barnegat standout and current Royals farmhand Mark McCoy. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

“I’ve been on this field before (in high school) and I’ve played in front of my family and friends before but it’s obviously a lot different coming here as a professional and playing in front of family,” McCoy said. “It was a really great experience knowing they could come see me play and getting to share some of this experience with them.”

If the trip home was not enough reason for McCoy to tolerate the long journey, his familiarity with life on the road might have helped as well. Before and after four years at Barnegat, McCoy, now 22, has moved around plenty. He grew up in four different homes in three different towns before his family moved to Barnegat prior to high school and after spending two seasons at Wake Forest, he transferred to Rutgers for his junior season.

The move to Rutgers paid off for McCoy when he was selected in the 29th round of the 2015 Draft by the Royals. He was selected in the 26th round by the Milwaukee Brewers out of Barnegat in 2012 and after appearing in only seven games out of the bullpen during his sophomore year at Wake Forest, he made the move back to N.J.

McCoy committed to Wake Forest prior to his junior year of high school, a decision that McCoy acknowledges might not have been the best fit. He grew up around the Rutgers program – his father, Dan, was a pitcher for the Scarlet Knights and his mother, Pia, was a soccer player for the Scarlet Knights. Dan McCoy is friends with Rutgers coach Joe Litterio so when Mark was looking for new home to spend his junior season, he went back to his old home.

“Rutgers is pretty much all I knew growing up,” McCoy said. “I grew up around Rutgers baseball with coach Litterio, (former longtime head) coach (Fred) Hill, (director of baseball operations and former hitting coach Glen Gardner). Going back there just felt like home. When I decided I was going back, I actually didn’t call coach Litterio. I called coach Hill and told him I was coming home and I think that meant a lot to him.”

At Rutgers, McCoy got back to being himself on the mound thanks to Scarlet Knights pitching coach and Toms River East alumni Casey Gaynor. He closed the season with four solid relief innings in a win over Iowa and the Royals snagged him weeks later.

“As soon as a got there, coach Gaynor pretty much told me he just wanted me to go out and do my thing,” McCoy said. “He was there to help with some things, but for the most part, he told me, ‘You got drafted out of high school for a reason so just go out and pitch like you’ve always known how to pitch.’”

After a solid pro debut last summer in which he struck out 29 in 29 innings with a 2.17 ERA in the Short-Season Appalachian League, McCoy began the 2016 season at Class-A Advanced Wilmington. McCoy struggled in 16 innings, pitching to an ERA north of 8.00 and walking 18, which prompted the Royals to send him to Lexington.

“The biggest thing with me is getting the fastball command up to where my breaking ball command is,” McCoy said. “Most guys can control their fastball but with me, I feel like I can put me breaking stuff where I want. The fastball is what I need to continue to work on. The velocity is there, it feels good coming out of my hand, but it’s just a matter of repeating my mechanics and my release point so I can put it where I want it.”

Former Barnegat standout and current Royals farmhand Mark McCoy. (Photo by Mark Brown, B51 Photography)

McCoy was the first player drafted out of Barnegat, where his father is in his fifth season as the head coach, but will not be the last. Current Bengals senior Jason Groome is expected to be a first-round pick with top-five potential.

“It’s pretty crazy to see where the program has gone,” McCoy said. “When I was there, there weren’t too many people coming to our games or writing about us but with what my dad has been able to do with the team as far as the tournaments and the attention they’ve gotten from Groome, it’s obviously at another level.

“With what little I’ve seen of (Groome), he’s obviously got all the tools. He has the velocity and the command of three pitches, so he has a chance to have a special career. My advice to him would to just be to enjoy it. Work hard, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”

Monday’s appearance was the silver-lining of a setback that comes with being a professional. He also enjoyed time with Red Bank Regional and George Mason alum Jake Kalish on the Lexington roster and before Kalish could return back to the Shore as a pro, he was promoted to Class-A Advanced Wilmington in advance of the Lakewood series on the strength of his 13 strikeouts and one walk in 11 1/3 innings.

With Kalish gone, McCoy was the only Legends player making a trip home this week. He enjoyed time with his friends and family after the game and remains optimistic that his fortunes will turn as he refines the command on his mid-90’s fastball.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s baseball,” McCoy said. “There are going to be ups and downs, but you have to keep it in perspective. We’re all doing something we’ve wanted to do since we were kids. It’s better than having to work for a living.”