McKenzie shoves in return from Triple-A

May 27th, 2021

knew before he took the mound on Wednesday that he would return to Triple-A Columbus following his outing, regardless of the outcome.

That no-pressure situation appeared to be exactly what Cleveland’s rookie righty needed, because McKenzie twirled his best outing of the season during the Indians’ 1-0 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park.

“Walking into the dugout [pregame], I was like, regardless of what happens in the game, I was going to be in the same spot, so I might as well go out there and relax and be myself,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie’s command issues have been well-documented this season and eventually resulted in the team deciding on Saturday that a breather in Triple-A would help him reset, adjust and grow. Entering Wednesday, the right-hander had walked 30 in 31 1/3 innings. He even admitted getting inside his own head a little in his last start, with a mindset of “don’t let another [walk] happen,” as opposed to “let’s attack this guy.”

That all changed Wednesday, when McKenzie’s 12-pitch first inning amounted to two groundouts and a flyout. The first test came via a one-out walk in the second. Was that worry etched on the lanky right-hander’s face?

Nope. McKenzie bounced back into an 0-2 count to the next batter before coaxing him into an inning-ending double play. After the walk, McKenzie threw a strike on 13 of his next 15 pitches.

“It was refreshing to know that it was still in there,” he said. “I definitely was showing glimpses of it, and I was very happy with the glimpses that I showed, but I wasn’t ecstatic about the results. I felt like tonight, it kind of all came together, and I was happy that it’s kind of a first step going forward.”

If there was a bigger confidence boost than facing the minimum through two innings, it came in the third, when McKenzie struck out the side on just 13 pitches. He fanned Akil Baddoo looking, showing a brief flash of regained confidence as he stalked around the mound between hitters. Up came Niko Goodrum and down he went, swinging, on a fastball and a pair of changeups. McKenzie then caught Jake Rogers swinging -- badly -- on an 0-2 breaking ball to wrap the third.

“I thought Triston threw the ball with more conviction tonight than we've seen all year,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “And you know what? Good for him. Good for us, but he did a really good job.”

McKenzie was nailing his location and finding his rhythm, enough so that he shook off catcher René Rivera in the fourth, opting for a fastball to ring up Harold Castro swinging for his fifth consecutive strikeout. After walking Jeimer Candelario, McKenzie came back hard to coax Miguel Cabrera to fly out to right.

Jonathan Schoop spoiled McKenzie’s no-hit bid with a one-out single up the middle in the fifth. The ensuing four-pitch walk to Baddoo got pitching coach Carl Willis on the phone and the bullpen hopping.

If McKenzie noticed, he didn’t show it. He went right back to challenging hitters, inducing a weak popup to Goodrum and another flyout to Rogers to complete his fifth and final frame. He finished the day with five punchouts, three walks and one hit allowed on 73 pitches, throwing a first-pitch strike to 11 of the 18 batters he faced.

“It felt great to be able to go out there and put up a couple of zeros,” McKenzie said, “But … along with that, the guys were right with me every step of the way.

“Every inning that I came in, I got fist bumps from everybody. When all the hitters were going out to hit, it was all like, ‘Hey, we’re going to try and get you a run here so that you can go out and have a safe, comfortable start.’”

The magic he harnessed was reminiscent of Aug. 22, 2020, when McKenzie allowed just two hits across six stellar innings in his Major League debut … against the Tigers. It couldn’t have come at a better time for a Cleveland rotation that lost Zach Plesac to injury on Sunday and hosts a Monday doubleheader.

Like many in the Indians' young rotation, McKenzie has had an accelerated maturation process. The 23-year-old rookie, who lost two seasons due to injuries and saw limited time on the hill in 2020, still has not thrown at the Triple-A level and worked just 16 starts at Double-A in 2018.

Saturday's option to Columbus -- and Wednesday’s ensuing return -- was far from a punishment, as McKenzie will return Monday as the 27th man for Cleveland’s doubleheader. He has worked diligently between starts to rectify his problems only to have them resurface once he takes the hill, so Cleveland hoped a little time away from the big stage would help McKenzie regain confidence.

Wednesday gave him a big head start.