UMaine pitcher Alex McKenney throws against Albany during a May 2021 series in Orono. The former Hampden Academy standout has signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Credit: Tyler Neville / University of Maine Athletics

Former Hampden Academy standout Alex McKenney had to work extremely hard to become a  starter in the University of Maine’s pitching rotation after undergoing reconstructive Tommy John surgery on his arm during his freshman season.

It paid off.

McKenney, a redshirt junior who was named the America East Pitcher of the Week twice this past season, has signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. He will report to their rookie league camp in Clearwater, Florida, with their draft choices and other free agent signings within the next week.

He had a 4-6 record for the Black Bears this spring, with a 3.67 earned run average over 56 1/3 innings. He allowed one earned run or less in three of his last four starts, posting a 1.98 ERA in those four appearances. For the season, opponents hit just a .214 batting average against him.

He concluded his UMaine career with one of his best performances as he allowed just two unearned runs over 8 1/3 innings in a 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Institute of Technology in the America East Tournament. He struck out four and walked one, and was named to the all-tournament team.

Due to the Tommy John surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited the 2020 season to just 13 games, McKenney came into this season with just 6 2/3 innings of career mound experience for the Black Bears.

“I wanted to get better in order to get to the next level.,” McKenney said. “It’s very exciting. It’s surreal.”

He had been talking to the Phillies before the draft, which wrapped up on Tuesday, and admitted that he was disappointed that he wasn’t one of the 612 players selected over the 20 rounds.

“But 10 minutes after the draft, their area scout offered me a free agent contract,” McKenney said.

He will receive a $20,000 signing bonus, the highest amount a free agent can receive, he said.

McKenney has been preparing for being drafted or signing a free agent deal by pitching for the Sanford Mariners in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He is 0-1 with a 3.74 ERA over 21 2/3 innings, with 20 strikeouts and 10 walks.

“I’ve been using my time with the Mariners to work on my secondary pitches,” he said, referring to his slider and split-fingered pitch.

“I’ve got a better feel for my slider now. I’ve also been working on being more aggressive against the better hitters,” he added.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pound McKenney has a live arm with a fastball consistently in the 93 to 94 mph range. He has reached 96 mph at times.

“The scouts said they loved the way I threw my fastball and they were excited to work with me on my secondary pitches,” he said.

McKenney had eligibility remaining at UMaine and said he had a “real good conversion” with UMaine head coach Nick Derba prior to making his decision.

“He told me he would like to have me back but that I would be foolish not to sign with the Phillies,” McKenney said. “I can’t thank him enough for his generosity. He has a good heart and he is honest. I respect him.”

McKenney will be one of four former UMaine pitchers and teammates to pitch in the minor leagues this season. Three of them are Maine natives.

Cody Laweryson from Moscow who attended Valley High School in Bingham was a 14th-round draft pick of Minnesota is now pitching for the Cedar Rapids Kernels in high Class A ball, and Bangor’s Justin Courtney is throwing for the Inland Empire 66ers, a low Class A team in the Los Angeles Angels organization. Courtney signed a free agent deal.

Nick Sinacola from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, was chosen in the seventh round by the San Francisco Giants on Monday and will begin his pro career shortly.