McKenzie (10 K's) in midseason form in '23 debut

June 4th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- When a pitcher is making his first appearance after a long stint on the injured list, his team is simply looking for a sign that shows he’s trending in the right direction. But decided to prove that he’s already in midseason form in his 2023 debut on Sunday afternoon.

McKenzie cruised in Cleveland's 2-1 win over the Twins at Target Field, giving up just one hit and one walk with 10 strikeouts in five scoreless innings after missing the first 58 games of the regular season with a teres major muscle strain. It marked his seventh career double-digit strikeout outing -- a not-so-subtle reminder of just how dominant he can be.

“I thought that was more than you could expect,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I mean, he worked so hard and he was diligent in everything. But then you get into a Major League game, and it’s different. … But to see him come out, use all of his pitches, have his fastball have some life through the zone -- that flew past encouraging.”

There was no doubt in the Guardians’ clubhouse that McKenzie would be back to himself in no time once he was given the green light from the training staff to return to action. But his injury history certainly prompts some questions regarding his durability.

McKenzie once sat atop Cleveland’s Top 30 prospects list, as ranked by MLB Pipeline, and drew concern as a Minor Leaguer over whether he could stay healthy enough to last a full season. He battled problems with his lat muscle and his pectoral muscle. But when he emerged in the second half of the 2021 season and continued to be electric throughout ‘22, those worries were eliminated.

McKenzie emerged as the obvious No. 2 starter behind last season. His 2.96 ERA with 190 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings was more than enough to show that he has the capability of turning into an ace. That’s what made his Spring Training injury, sustained during his final Cactus League start, even more concerning.

Whatever worry had been present over the last two-plus months can now be put to bed. McKenzie didn’t miss a step in his 2023 debut after making three rehab starts. His road to recovery began with an outing for Triple-A Columbus against the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate on May 20. Royce Lewis, who is now reinstated from Minnesota’s 60-day IL, was on a rehab assignment and was in the dugout (a day off for him) when the Triple-A St. Paul lineup was shut down for three scoreless innings.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Man, he looks like he’s back to normal,’” Lewis said.

A few weeks later, McKenzie proved it, executing all three of his pitches brilliantly in Sunday’s one-hit, five-inning outing. His fastball averaged 92.9 mph, his curveball was called for a strike seven times and his slider induced six whiffs out of the seven swings that were taken against it.

“His fastball, you look at the vertical rise on it, it’s like 20, 21, which is pretty incredible,” Twins shortstop Kyle Farmer said. “And his slider, I hadn’t really seen a slider like his before. It was pretty good. He has that curveball. He didn’t miss many spots today. That’s the best I’ve seen him in a while. His first start back, he was dotting everything. That’s just pitching. He beat us today.”

“The vertical on [his slider] is unreal,” Lewis said. “It’s something better than like [Justin] Verlander even. You just have to get on top of it.”

What did McKenzie’s results tell him?

“I’m executing,” McKenzie said. “My stuff’s playing in the zone, and I’m able to go in and out of the zone when I need to. I got some quick outs. So, I was happy with it outside of the walk, yeah.”

This was the McKenzie everyone remembered. His last rehab start with Triple-A Columbus on Tuesday was cut short due to rain. He was sent to the bullpen during the delay to finish simulating his outing. It was easy to question whether he’d be ready to make the jump to the big leagues without a full final tuneup in the Minors.

It seems safe to say he was ready.