'Those are the moments you live for': Karinchak shines in big spot

April 11th, 2023

CLEVELAND -- James Karinchak stood on the mound, roaring, with his arms flexed below his waist like a bodybuilder. He pounded his chest three times with his right hand before throwing his arms above his head. He skipped side to side, making his way toward the Guardians’ dugout and chest-bumped his catcher so hard that his mask popped off his head.

This is the Karinchak the Guardians need this season.

“Those are the moments you live for,” Karinchak said.

He pitched with a passion that could have fooled anyone into thinking a random game in April was somehow Game 7 of the World Series. His energy has sometimes led to his demise, as we already saw earlier this season. But on nights when he’s in control like Monday at Progressive Field, Karinchak can be a weapon for Cleveland’s bullpen, and he’s a big reason why the club was able to best the Yankees, 3-2, in the series opener.

The Guardians had been hanging by a thread. Their ace, , struggled in the first inning, giving up two quick runs. But he was able to settle in and prevent any further damage through the seventh inning, which allowed his offense to scratch and claw its way back in the game, scoring two runs on sacrifice flies and another on a double.

After Bieber’s seven frames, the ball was handed to Karinchak, who was heading into a similar situation as his first appearance of the season in Seattle. Against the Mariners, it was a scoreless game and he battled a rowdy crowd, a pitch violation and difficulties with PitchCom. That time, he derailed and gave up three runs.

Against the Yankees, he had a one-run lead in front of a loud home crowd and had to overcome a pitch violation, difficulties with PitchCom and a miscue from his center fielder. This time, he rose to the occasion.

“He doesn’t have a shortage of stuff,” Zunino said. “Once he trusts it and starts mixing everything like he’s been doing, I think he’ll get in a groove and pick up some huge innings for us.”

It all started with Monday night.

Before Karinchak threw a pitch, he was charged with a ball because a disagreement with a pitch call led to him stepping off the rubber. Yankees leadoff hitter Gleyber Torres then served a ball into center field that may have been just a single if outfielder had played it on a bounce. Instead, he tried to make a highlight-reel-worthy diving catch and the ball disappeared under his glove, rolling all the way to the warning track.

Now, Karinchak had a runner on third with no outs in a one-run game. And this time, he didn’t let the wheels fall off the cart.

“I can slow the game down better than I used to,” Karinchak said, reflecting on his time in the Majors.

The next batter that stepped to the plate was one of the most dangerous in baseball: Aaron Judge. After a first-pitch heater inside and off the plate, Karinchak forced Judge to check his swing on a curveball, sending a delicate bloop to for out No. 1.

“He’s got good life on that fastball and that good breaking ball,” Judge said. “He does a good job staying at the top of the zone and then breaking that curveball into the bottom of the zone. It’s all about picking your pitch and making sure you don’t miss it.”

Three straight 95-plus mph heaters to Anthony Rizzo created a 1-2 count, setting Karinchak’s curveball up perfectly, as Rizzo whiffed through the 84.3 mph offering for the second out. That left just Giancarlo Stanton as the last big hurdle to elude.

With a 1-2 count following back-to-back foul balls, Karinchak pounded a 96.2 mph heater at the top of the strike zone that Stanton failed to hit, sending Karinchak into a wild celebration.

This isn’t the first time Karinchak has shown emotion like this on the rubber. Whether he’s had a flawless start to the year or he’s needed to right the ship like he has, he celebrates the same way. But it wouldn’t be surprising if there was some relief in that reaction, reminding everyone that he can be the high-leverage guy the Guardians need him to be.

“That was a huge outing there,” Zunino said, “and going through that part of the lineup and getting those outs was really the difference in the game.”