Lacking confidence, McKenzie sent to Minors

CLEVELAND -- Indians manager Terry Francona discussed the expectations of starter Triston McKenzie prior to Saturday's 5-4 victory over the Mariners and said, "The hope is that he just remains aggressive in the strike zone, because that was our biggest message to him when we sent him down."

The optimism was there, but the results were not. McKenzie threw seven straight balls to open the game, issued four walks and couldn't escape the first inning, which resulted in his demotion back to Triple-A on Sunday morning. In a corresponding move, the Indians recalled infielder Ernie Clement.

"Just kind of felt like I let the game speed up on me a little bit," McKenzie said after the game. "Kind of got overwhelmed, first time actually being in the stadium with lots and lots of fans. Can't let it happen. I felt like I tried to do a good job controlling my emotions. Just kind of let the game slip away from me a little bit."

McKenzie's lack of command prompted a quick visit from Indians head athletic trainer James Quinlan after granting consecutive free passes, but the 23-year-old quickly turned down any idea of being removed due to injury. But it was more than a lack of command that was concerning. His 16 fastballs averaged 1.3 mph lower than his season average this year, while his 10 curveballs averaged 1.1 mph slower. However, McKenzie reassured Quinlan that the velocity dip wasn't due to an underlying injury.

McKenzie sits atop the MLB leaderboard (min. 40 innings pitched) with an 8.29 walks-per-nine-innings ratio. His stuff isn't the problem, as he's allowed just a .188 average against him this year. But McKenzie admitted earlier in the season that it became a mental battle for him on the rubber when he'd start to lose command.

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“We’ve seen he’s capable of pitching really successfully up here,” Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. “I think he now owns the club record for consecutive strikeouts. So we know it’s possible. What we’d like to work with Triston on is making sure we see that version of himself more often than some of the times he’s struggled.”

The Indians wanted him to have some time in Triple-A to regain his confidence, but a freak injury to Zach Plesac caused everything to get thrown out of whack. Cleveland needed McKenzie to make two starts after his demotion, and the right-hander appeared to have made some strides even without time in the Minors. He made just one start at Triple-A before a shortage of starters caused Cleveland to recall him on Saturday morning.

“That’s the reality of Major League Baseball,” Antonetti said. “Guys are gonna go up and down between the Major Leagues and Triple-A based upon things that happened and plans changing. One of the things we try to do is make sure as an organization we’re adaptive and flexible, and our players need to be able to do the same because there are very few that come up and never go back to the Minor Leagues. In some respects, guys will have to learn how to deal with that.”

But now, the team got the answer it was looking for: McKenzie needs that time in Triple-A to regain his confidence. So, where does the rotation go from here? The club started a stretch of 30 games in 31 days on Friday and only has Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and most likely Jean Carlos Mejía as guaranteed starters. It wouldn't be surprising to see Cal Quantrill get another shot in the rotation moving forward or if Eli Morgan would get another call up to the big leagues.

“I don’t think we have any other choice but to look at it creatively,” Antonetti said. “So, hopefully we’ll get Zach back at some point over the next few weeks and that’ll help. But we know we’re going to have to rely on a number of different players. It’s not gonna be able to just run the same five guys out there every five days. So, we’ll have to be flexible and creative in how we do that.”

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