McKenzie almost perfect, but still wants more

May 29th, 2022

DETROIT -- The Cleveland faithful behind the visitors’ dugout at Comerica Park rose to cheer for their starter on Sunday as he made the trip from mound to dugout. There was nothing to be ashamed of -- far from it, in fact -- but ever the perfectionist, Triston McKenzie kept his glove firmly in place over his mouth every step of the way.

Two pitches of his 90 -- each of them offspeed offerings -- were all that separated the Guardians from their first series win since May 5-8 against the Blue Jays. One out was all that separated the 24-year-old from what could have been the first complete game of his Major League career.

Of course, there was a whole lot more to it than that. One day after scoring eight runs on 11 hits, Cleveland’s offense mustered a single run to back its starter, finished 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and left seven men on during a 2-1 loss to the Tigers in the series finale.

Cleveland manager Terry Francona asked for the ball just after third baseman José Ramírez fumbled the transfer on Jeimer Candelario’s slow grounder against the shift. An out instead of an error would have ended the eighth, but instead, it put two men on and Francona opted to bring in Bryan Shaw for the final out.

“I have no doubt [McKenzie] could have gotten the last out,” Francona said, “I just … when we’re not winning, I hate for our guys to be working [in those spots].”

Sunday brought another sharp outing for the lanky righty in his second full season, who is rolling along in 2022. McKenzie has pitched to a 2.65 ERA across eight starts and has limited opponents to an anemic .176 batting average, good for second best in MLB behind the Yankees’ Nestor Cortes (.175).

He also owns an 0.86 WHIP.

True to his character, McKenzie remained upbeat as he rehashed a day that included eight strikeouts against one walk and just four hits allowed over 7 2/3 stellar frames. Though he faced just one over the minimum until Harold Castro parked a hung slider into the left-center seats with one out in the fourth, McKenzie said he felt he gained steam and settled in as he worked.

His curve and slider increased in efficacy as he went. McKenzie drew 12 swings and misses during his outing, one more than the four pitchers the Tigers used combined.

“I talked to [catcher Luke] Maile about that a little bit, especially going into the fifth, sixth inning,” McKenzie said. “Just, my stuff started to tighten up a little bit. I think I was just moving a little bit better. Just kind of getting into the flow of the game.”

The sixth brought with it a small hiccup, a Candelario home run on a curveball that caught too much of the plate, but McKenzie was still fully in control.

He hit the eighth in full stride, and -- with Cleveland trailing 2-1 after scoring in the top of the seventh -- allowed a single between a strikeout and a flyout, needing just seven pitches to bring up Candelario. When the error put runners at first and second, McKenzie dropped the ball in Francona’s hand without an argument and walked purposefully off the field.

“[I wanted to stay in] 100%, and he knows that,” McKenzie said. “I think the coaching staff knows that; I think the team knows that. I'm out there trying to get outs from pitch one to hopefully the end of the game.

“But that’s more just me being competitive, and I trust [Francona]. I wasn't upset with the decision at all.”