'It's unbelievable': Williams shows resolve in debut

June 22nd, 2023

CLEVELAND -- could’ve easily caved when things went sideways. Instead, he showed why everyone in the Guardians organization has raved about him from the moment he was drafted.

The 23-year-old righty got through 5 2/3 innings in the Guardians’ 7-6 victory over the A’s on Wednesday at Progressive Field and walked off the mound to a raucous standing ovation from those in attendance. He gave up four runs, including a three-run blast by Ryan Noda, but he locked in to retire 11 of the last 13 batters he faced without allowing a hit.

“He just competed his butt off today,” said Guardians backstop , who also recorded his first big league hit.

Williams is Cleveland’s top prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and ranked No. 16 in Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects list. His debut has been highly anticipated since he was drafted by the Guardians in the first round in 2021. His 2.10 ERA with 230 strikeouts and a 0.96 WHIP over 175 1/3 Minor League innings only caused the excitement to grow.

It took Williams a few innings to settle in during his first career start, which can only be expected for someone with that level of pressure surrounding him. He had a 19-pitch first inning, a 15-pitch second inning and a 26-pitch third inning (when he gave up the three-run homer). But then, everything changed. 

“There’s an inning where there’s a decision to be made,” Naylor said, “and that’s either you submit to the pressure or you continue to compete. And I think we saw what Gavin is really made of.”

Williams recorded all three outs on seven pitches in the fourth. He bested that in the fifth with an efficient five-pitch effort. He finished his evening having given up four runs on four hits with three walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. 

“I came in and told myself I needed that,” Williams said. “It really calmed the nerves down.” 

“That was really encouraging,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “He had the third inning where he gave up four hits in a row. Actually, I think those were the only four hits. … But then he came back and had a seven-pitch inning and a five-pitch inning.”

The righty is known for his heater. It usually sits in the mid-to-upper 90s. On Wednesday, it averaged 95.5 mph and topped out at 98 mph. He didn’t see the same swing-and-miss he’s been used to in Triple-A, but he showcased the growth he has made with his breaking pitches, recording three of his four strikeouts on his slider or curveball.

“I don’t think -- just hearing from the guys today -- he had his best stuff,” Francona said. “And there could be a million reasons. But let him settle in, get to know him [and] there’s a lot to like.” 

The pressure of making your Major League debut would be enough to cause anyone’s heart rate to skyrocket. For someone who carries the title “top prospect,” it can only be more difficult. Williams also had more than 50 friends, family members and former coaches in the stands to watch his first career start. He joked that if he was wearing a bracelet that tracked his heart rate, it would’ve broken because it wouldn’t have been able to keep up with his pulse.

All of this is expected for someone getting their first taste of the big leagues. Francona is always the first to remind a young player that his first game will not define his career moving forward. Williams probably never dreamed of giving up a three-run homer in his Major League debut. But the way he reacted to the situation, buckling down to showcase what he does have in the tank, is exactly what the Guardians wanted to see. 

“I asked him when he came out, ‘Do you have a heartbeat?’” Francona said. “He goes, ‘Oh yeah.’ For him to control what he controlled was good.” 

The Williams era is only beginning. And now that the Guardians have three hurlers in the rotation who started the year in the Top 100 list -- Williams, Tanner Bibee and Logan Allen -- the new generation of Cleveland pitching has officially begun. 

“It’s unbelievable,” Williams said. “I can’t really put it into words right now.”