CLEVELAND – This is how everyone expected Cleveland pitching to look this season.
The passing of the baton from Triston McKenzie to Eli Morgan to Emmanuel Clase was as effective and effortless as the Guardians could’ve asked for on Sunday afternoon in a 2-0 victory over the Yankees at Progressive Field. It marked the 11th time Cleveland held New York to a one-hit shutout and first since July 8, 2003.
That dominance started with McKenzie.
“He was impressive,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “That was really impressive. We saw in the first games, if you give [the Yankees] an inch, they’re gonna probably take ‘em out. And he really pitched aggressively, stayed out of the middle, spun the ball. That was fun to watch.”
Entering Sunday, McKenzie had given up 15 homers in his previous eight starts. He had said there was no trend in any of those outings leading to an answer of why so many balls were leaving the park against him. But with that being a habit he had fallen into, the biggest slugging team coming to the plate against him seemed like a recipe for disaster. Except it was quite the opposite.
McKenzie held the Yankees to one hit -- a Josh Donaldson single to left in the fourth -- with one walk and seven strikeouts in seven sparkling frames. So what was the difference between this trip to the rubber and his last few?
“I think the difference between this outing and the last couple of outings was making them feel a little more uncomfortable at the plate and using all my pitches to both sides,” McKenzie said. “I used my curveball well to kind of slow them down, and I think that just helped keep guys off balance and helped keep my heater kind of useful from the first inning to the last inning.”
McKenzie used nearly half the number of curveballs against the Yankees as he did against the Twins last time out. But clearly, the more selective he was, the more effective he became. In his last two outings combined, opponents hit .308 against his curveball. On Sunday, the only hit he gave up was against his slider. And with that improvement in his curve allowed his fastball to play up even better.
McKenzie battled command issues last season, which eventually led to a lack of confidence, prompting a quick trip down to Triple-A. But the difference this season is that McKenzie has rapidly matured in his limited time in the big leagues and has been able to maintain a strong mindset despite some of his results, allowing him to bounce back and remind everyone just how lethal he can be, as he recorded his 23rd career start allowing three or fewer hits (tied for second most in the Majors since his debut in 2020).
“Unbelievable,” said Guardians DH Franmil Reyes, who was responsible for the team’s two runs. “Triston this year has been like the Triston you guys all know. He’s a very talented player -- the way he pitches, his attitude, his focus -- and today was a great performance.”
It’s crucial for the Guardians to get as many innings from their starters as possible (especially now with their third doubleheader in six days slated for Monday) to help get the ball into Clase’s hand as quickly as possible. Even when the closer ran into unexpected trouble in the ninth with an Owen Miller error at first base, putting runners on first and second with no outs, he didn’t waver. He recorded back-to-back strikeouts before the Yankees sent AL MVP candidate Aaron Judge to the plate.
“He's a great hitter, but I feel like I'm a good pitcher too,” Clase said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero. “So that's my mindset, and it's just, 'Let's compete.' … He ended up walking, but I was able to execute the pitches in the plan that we had.”
Walking Judge in a hard-fought plate appearance to load the bases in the top of the ninth was not a problem for the Guardians. Clase was able to reset and force Aaron Hicks to ground out and end the game in the next at-bat. Clase picked up his 19th save of the season, lowered his ERA to 1.31 and demonstrated how dominant this pitching staff can be if the starter can set the tone.
“Last year, we saw a couple instances where things got a little quick like they do with young players,” Francona said. “Now, he’s got some opportunities under his belt and kind of pitches like a veteran even though he’s a young kid.”