In Bieber's absence, McKenzie stepping up with ace-like stuff

May 18th, 2024

CLEVELAND -- The second that the Guardians learned they would be without for the rest of the 2024 season, they knew they would need someone to step up as an ace of this rotation.

An ace doesn’t necessarily mean a lights-out, unhittable pitcher. An ace can be a reliable starter who consistently eats up innings, finds ways to grind through frames when he doesn’t have his best stuff and always gives his team a chance to win.

is starting to prove that he can be that guy for the Guardians this year and his performance on Friday further solidified that.

McKenzie worked around his four walks in the series opener against Minnesota to allow just one run (a solo homer) on two hits with five strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings to help the Guardians secure a 3-2 victory over the Twins at Progressive Field.

“Oh my goodness,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said instinctually when asked about his starter’s performance. “I think he would tell you he wasn’t sharp the first few innings but he was finding a way. … He made pitches when he needed to and then he locked it in for his last few innings. Triston getting us to just about the eighth inning was an outstanding job today. He just continues to get better and better each time out.”

It’s true; McKenzie has gotten better as the season’s progressed. All throughout April, he didn't complete six innings in a single outing. Since the calendar flipped to May, three of his four starts have been at least 6 2/3 frames.

“I think it’s just been a trend over the last couple of starts just being able to pound the zone, force some contact, got a couple of double plays,” McKenzie said. “So just being able to make them put the ball in play and let the guys work behind me. I think everybody contributed today.”

The biggest advantage of having McKenzie take the ball every five days right now has been the length he’s providing to save his bullpen. The Guardians rotation had a span of 15 consecutive starts of fewer than six innings last month, which resulted in an overtaxed bullpen.

At one point, four relievers (Emmanuel Clase, Scott Barlow, Hunter Gaddis and Nick Sandlin) were all tied for the most appearances in the Majors. The Guardians desperately needed at least one starter to consistently provide length every five days.

Now, McKenzie is stepping up to fill that role.

It doesn’t matter that his velocity has been a tick lower this season than we’d seen in the past. He’s also had some issues with his command, having entered the night averaging 5.3 walks per game, which was the fifth worst in the Majors among hurlers who have thrown at least 30 innings. He added another four on Friday.

But McKenzie demonstrated again on Friday that he has the qualities of an ace, figuring out how to dance around these hurdles and still be effective enough to help his team win, especially against a division rival.

“I think just being able to not let one turn into two or let the walk turn into a base hit,” McKenzie said of the key to not letting walks derail his performance. “Just being able to stay locked in.”

In the first inning, McKenzie allowed a one-out walk. But he immediately turned a double play to end the inning in the next at-bat. When he permitted a walk in the third inning, he again forced a double play in the next at-bat.

Backstop Bo Naylor picked him up in the fifth inning, picking off Alex Kirilloff after drawing a walk. McKenzie’s day ended on a walk with two outs in the seventh inning to Carlos Correa, but righty Hunter Gaddis came in to strike out former Clevelander Carlos Santana to end the frame.

It hasn’t been perfect for McKenzie, but he’s proven he can get the job done. It’s the leadership this rotation needs. It’s the breather the bullpen needs after working overtime for the first month of the season. And it’s the first step back to reminding everyone what this organization has been known for: Excellent starting pitching.

“This guy’s a really good pitcher in our league and he knows how to get outs, Vogt said. “I just continue to marvel at 'T', his work, the way he puts in his preparation and just an ultimate competitor.”