After injury-riddled '23, McKenzie opens with promising start

April 2nd, 2024

SEATTLE -- and the Guardians know the value of patience.

McKenzie endured a season full of frustration last year, when a teres major muscle strain led to right elbow woes that kept him out for all but four starts.

So even though McKenzie struggled in his long-awaited return to the mound in Monday night’s 5-4 loss to the Mariners at T-Mobile Park, lasting only 3 1/3 innings, the fact that the right-hander is healthy and it’s April -- with so much more of 2024 still to come -- has Cleveland feeling bullish about what he will give them.

“It was great to see him go out there and throw and feel good coming off the mound,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “He just lost his command there for a little bit. But good to see him out there. To go out and feel healthy, it’s always a good thing.”

It was a mere two seasons ago that McKenzie put himself on the map as one of the most exciting young starters in the American League, after all. In 2022, he went 11-11 with a 2.96 ERA and 190 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings and a stingy WHIP of 0.95.

Then 2023 and its 16 total innings happened.

On Monday, McKenzie understandably pitched like a man trying to shake off rust.

Things started well with a 1-2-3 first inning, but he ran into the bulk of his trouble in the second. With one out, McKenzie walked Mitch Garver and Cal Raleigh in succession, then gave up a line-drive RBI single to Ty France before Dominic Canzone unloaded with a three-run home run to center field to give Seattle a 4-0 lead.

McKenzie settled in after that, retiring the next six batters, but he surrendered back-to-back base hits to Raleigh and France in the bottom of the fourth, and after Josh Naylor mishandled a hard ground ball to first by Canzone to load the bases, Vogt pulled McKenzie.

He gave up five runs (four earned) on four hits and two walks while striking out two, but the number that the Guardians didn’t mind was the fact that he threw 78 pitches, 47 of which were strikes.

“I wish I would have been better,” McKenzie said. “I think today is a good step forward and we're looking forward from here. So I’m just trying to be better from here.

“I think, really, the walk to Garver hurt me. And then Canzone really just got his pitch. … And then after that, I think I did a good job of battling, staying in the game, and just the pitch count was up and I ended up getting knocked out.”

But the Guardians didn’t get knocked out without a fight.

They answered back with two runs of their own in the top of the third when they loaded the bases against Seattle starter Emerson Hancock and cashed in with an RBI fielder’s choice off the bat of Steven Kwan and a sacrifice fly by Andrés Giménez.

In the sixth inning, center fielder Tyler Freeman took Hancock deep, belting a 392-foot solo home run to center field that bounced out of the outstretched glove of Julio Rodríguez and chased the Seattle starter from the game.

And in the eighth, Josh Naylor hit a solo blast off Mariners late-inning reliever Andres Muñoz, a 438-foot no-doubter into the bleachers in right center field that left the bat with an exit velocity of 108 mph and cut the Mariners’ lead to 5-4.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland bullpen and the team’s defense helped keep the Guardians in the game. Nick Sandlin, Cade Smith, Hunter Gaddis and Tyler Beede combined for 4 2/3 scoreless frames with seven strikeouts to give their team a chance.

And the Guardians threw out two Mariners runners at the plate. The first came in the fourth inning, when J.P. Crawford flew out to shallow center field and Freeman uncorked a throw to catcher Bo Naylor that nailed France at home. The second came in the seventh, when Kwan fielded it in left and threw to third baseman José Ramírez, who relayed to Naylor to nail Rodríguez.

“We're going to fight to the end no matter what game it is,” Freeman said. “I thought we played well. We just came up short, and you’ve got to get over it.”