McKenzie shows off command in 8 scoreless innings

Right-hander strengthens claim to title of ace with another dominant start

August 7th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- Maybe he didn’t get his first career complete game and shutout on Sunday afternoon, but eight scoreless frames from will do.

McKenzie was absolutely dominant in the series finale against the Astros, allowing just two hits in eight frames in the Guardians' 1-0 victory over Houston at Progressive Field. After allowing back-to-back singles in the second inning, McKenzie retired the next 18 batters he faced until he permitted a walk with one out in the eighth. 

“I think it’s just staying in his lanes,” Guardians catcher  said when asked what makes McKenzie click. “What I mean by that is: When he tries to go away, he starts with his fastball, and his fastball is able to get to the extension side -- away to right-handed hitters. More often than not, those are the days when his breaking stuff plays best.”

McKenzie has arguably been the most reliable pitcher in the Guardians’ rotation this season. And since the calendar flipped to July, he’s shifted into second gear. The box scores in McKenzie’s last two outings weren’t the flashiest, but neither told the whole story. He’s been nearly untouchable in his past seven starts, with each of his previous two outings getting clouded with a late-game homer. But this time, McKenzie's line spoke for itself.

“He had no margin for error today,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said, “and fortunately he didn't make any.”

Since July 3. McKenzie has pitched to a 1.70 ERA, limiting opponents to a .167/.220/.222 slash line. In that span, ranks first in opponent OPS (.451), innings pitched (47 2/3), opponent average (.167, tied for first) and third in strikeouts (48).

“I think it’s a culmination of talking to [pitching coach] Carl [Willis],” McKenzie said, “and figuring out like, 'Hey, I pitched well in this start. What did I do well to continue that?' And, 'I didn’t throw so hot in this one, what can I improve upon [it]?' Then just kind of figuring out how to attack each lineup and figuring out what works for me.”

A large part of McKenzie’s success this season has come from his curveball. Hitters entered the day batting .128 against it on the year, which ranked third best in the Majors among pitchers who had at least 60 plate appearances end with curveballs, trailing the Brewers' Corbin Burnes (.118) and the Rays' Shane McClanahan (.125). On Sunday, McKenzie added a groundout, a lineout, a strikeout and a walk to those stats. And it certainly didn’t hurt that he had as many swings and misses against his heater as he did his curveball.

“I think today he threw a couple 90-mph fastballs by some pretty good hitters when they were expecting fastballs,” Maile said. “Obviously, he has 95-96 [mph] in the tank, but when 90 is getting them -- you know that they’re trying to pick a side, and that speaks to how good his command is with the fastball leading up to that particular pitch.”

McKenzie had been flirting with the possibility of reaching Maddux territory, keeping an efficient pitch count through the first seven frames with zero walks. But when he had to navigate around a free pass to Kyle Tucker with one out -- and eventually escaped the frame on an inning-ending double play by Jose Altuve -- it was time to hand the ball to All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase, despite the fact that McKenzie was at 91 pitches.

“I thought his stuff was down a little that inning,” Francona said.

The Guardians need to be able to rely on their pitching like they have in the past to try to be a contender this year and McKenzie is giving them a dependable arm every fifth day. It’s been difficult for the club to find, considering McKenzie and Cal Quantrill just recorded consecutive outings of at least six scoreless innings for the first time for Cleveland since Zach Plesac and Shane Bieber did so on July 29-30, 2020, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But even if the Guardians don’t make a run in 2022, McKenzie is proving he was well worth the wait through some injuries during his Minor League career. And starting the only two games the Guardians have allowed no hits after the second inning this season (also on May 7) is just a subtle reminder of how dominant he’s been.

“I think they’re one of the best teams in baseball,” McKenzie said of the Astros. "So to be able to split a series with them is big.”