McKenzie's start in Toronto 'a stepping stone'

Now 24, right-hander thrives against potent Blue Jays offense

August 6th, 2021

TORONTO -- In his first start since his 24th birthday, Triston McKenzie was one center-cut slider shy of keeping pace in a pitchers’ duel at Rogers Centre.

Still, McKenzie was strong over seven innings in the Indians’ 3-0 loss to the Blue Jays on Thursday night. He allowed five hits, struck out four and -- for the first time all season -- walked none. On top of that, earning his first win in his past 10 starts would’ve been icing on the cake.

“It was a solid start to bring in 24,” McKenzie said. “I was very happy with the way I pitched. I wasn’t necessarily 100 percent happy with the results -- I wish we could’ve gotten the win -- but it’s definitely a stepping stone and definitely a step in the right direction.”

On the command front, McKenzie has been taking steps in the right direction for a month now. Dating back to July 9, he has allowed just six walks in his past five starts. Given that he entered the night with a 6.4 walks per nine rate -- second only to Minnesota’s John Gant (6.5) among pitchers with at least 60 innings thrown -- that’s a big deal. McKenzie issued four or more walks in six of his first eight appearances.

Cleveland’s acting manager, DeMarlo Hale, wasn’t sure if McKenzie’s turnaround had more to do with his confidence or a mechanical adjustment. McKenzie said it was a result of “taking my lumps” in past starts and learning how to attack hitters his way.

“I had the struggles early on, and [now] it’s more just me finding my place and trying to be one among my peers,” he explained.

On Thursday, McKenzie walked all over the Blue Jays for the first three innings, retiring the lineup in order. In the fourth, however, Bo Bichette tagged him for a two-out, two-run home run that shattered the game’s scoreless tie.

McKenzie fed Bichette three sliders: One missed low, another missed high, and the third … missed right over the heart of the plate. Bichette added another two-out gut punch in the sixth, poking a single to center field, scoring Marcus Semien, who had doubled.

“Bo, we’ve got beef,” McKenzie said after the game, jokingly, with both index fingers pointed forward. In truth, there’s a mutual respect between the young players.

“Yeah, he’s a competitor, man,” Bichette said of McKenzie, whom he used to face in the Minors. “I’ve always appreciated that about him. Still do. He’s going to attack you, and if he gets beat, he gets beat. He’s got good stuff, he always has. And I think the competitive edge he has, he’ll be a good pitcher for a while.”

Bichette was the only one who truly beat McKenzie on Thursday. The Cleveland righty noted that Toronto’s lineup features “threat after threat,” which requires on the fly adjustments -- and he adjusted accordingly, stepping over landmines named George Springer (0-for-3 with two strikeouts) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1-for-3, single).

Cleveland’s offense, on the other hand, failed to detonate at any point. A night after rallying for six late runs in the eighth and ninth innings, the Indians were shut out for a seventh time in 2021. They twice pushed a runner to third base, but never farther. The Indians plated 12 runs against the White Sox on July 31, but they’ve scored just 14 runs in five games since.

“With that type of game, not a lot of offense, sometimes you need to cash in with those few opportunities you get,” Hale said.

So it goes, and Cleveland’s two-city road trip ends at 2-5. At least it culminated with an encouraging effort from McKenzie in the facet of the game that the Indians have been hurting most. Entering the night, Cleveland’s rotation had a 6.71 ERA over its prior 35 starts, which was the highest in the Majors in that span.

Maybe, as McKenzie suggested, Thursday was a stepping stone for better results to come.