'No question' McKenzie excitement growing

September 9th, 2021

CLEVELAND -- The Indians knew the 2021 season was going to be one full of challenges. For the first time in a handful of years, the club was entering a huge transitional period, the Opening Day roster was suddenly the youngest in the Majors and the expectation was that the club likely wouldn’t be a fierce competitor in the American League Central.

But that shouldn’t be the case again in 2022, especially with the potential of the starting rotation.

Each time toes the rubber, it’s easy to wonder when he might take a step backward. He’s been dominant since his most recent callup from Triple-A Columbus on July 9 and has showed no signs of falling back into the rut he was in at the beginning of the season. That continued right through the Indians’ 3-0 loss to the Twins on Wednesday night at Progressive Field.

“He’s good again,” Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said. “The bottom of the order kind of got us over these last two nights, really. The walk became costly, because the hit that followed scored. But you know, you’re talking about him mixing his pitches -- curveballs, fastballs, sliders. He was good again.”

A walk and a stolen base in the top of the fifth inning set Nick Gordon up for an RBI double, marking the lone run the Twins were able to score against McKenzie in his six frames. It was a dramatic improvement from the last time he faced the Twins on May 21, when he permitted six runs in 3 1/3 frames. This time, he gave up the one run on just three hits with one walk and seven strikeouts.

“I feel like they’re a team we’ve played often,” McKenzie said. “I feel like they have very, very good bats throughout their lineup, top to bottom. I feel like they know us as a pitching staff, so I feel like they come out aggressive and that’s kind of their philosophy. We just stuck to our game plan of trying to keep them off balance.”

McKenzie has been able to do exactly that, and not just against the Twins. Over his past four outings, he’s pitched to a 1.00 ERA (three earned runs in 27 innings), giving up no more than three hits in any of those starts. In his last four trips to the rubber, he’s retired 79 of the 92 batters he’s faced, while recording 32 strikeouts with just three walks.

Of the three hits Minnesota totaled vs. McKenzie, one was by a right-hander (a double from Josh Donaldson), which doesn’t happen too frequently. The Indians righty has held right-handed hitters to a .165 average -- the second lowest among AL starters with a minimum of 200 batters faced, trailing just Shohei OhtanI (.161).

“He was in a really good rhythm,” Twins backstop Ryan Jeffers said. “He’s got a good fastball like [Twins starter] Joe [Ryan] does that plays up higher than the velocity does that he’s showing. And then a good slider and a good curveball. He did a good job of mixing those and keeping him on the edges. Didn’t really throw many pitches in the heart of the plate. He’s able to have success with that.”

With Aaron Civale now back in the rotation and Shane Bieber closing in on a rehab assignment, the dream of a lethal rotation can start coming back together. But the rotation won’t be as effective without an improved offense behind it.

The Indians’ lineup has had its hot streaks this season, but it’s inconsistency was on display once again on Wednesday, as Twins starter Ryan carried a perfect game into the seventh inning. Cleveland has already been no-hit twice this season, excluding a seven-inning hitless game against the Rays. If the Indians can increase their payroll this offseason like they’ve indicated they will, the team’s first focus will be looking for an impact bat to help bring some more balance to the lineup.

But leaning on starting pitching is nothing new for Cleveland, as the club has done exactly that over the last few years. However, because of the injuries and the inexperience on this roster, it wasn’t quite the same in 2021. Now, with McKenzie proving why he’s been one of the team’s highest-touted prospects, the idea of the 24-year-old righty being a No. 4 or 5 starter in 2022 shows that the starting depth is making a tremendous comeback.

“No question,” Hale said when asked if there’s excitement growing about McKenzie’s future. “He has made some adjustments. I mentioned it earlier, it’s not easy for players to kind of go back [to Triple-A] and make some adjustments. He did and came back, he’s not walking people.

“I think you got to divide his season into when he came back and before he went down, and you’ll see the type of pitcher you got to be excited about moving forward.”