The Indians were clear that their starting-pitching depth was the sole reason they felt comfortable enough to deal Mike Clevinger at the Trade Deadline on Monday. Sure, the team has one of the best starters in the game in Shane Bieber, along with Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac,
The Indians were clear that their starting-pitching depth was the sole reason they felt comfortable enough to deal Mike Clevinger at the Trade Deadline on Monday. Sure, the team has one of the best starters in the game in Shane Bieber, along with Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac, but it was Triston McKenzie who handed the Tribe that final piece of reassurance.
The 23-year-old took the big stage by storm in his Aug. 22 debut, striking out 10 batters in six innings. McKenzie labored more in his second outing, but he had already proved enough to make the Indians confident in leaving him in their rotation, freeing them to send Clevinger to the Padres.
Two days after the Deadline, McKenzie demonstrated in the Tribe’s 5-0 victory over the Royals at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday that his first start was more than beginner’s luck. In his third career start, McKenzie, Cleveland’s No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline, delivered his first scoreless outing, tossing six dominant frames with three hits allowed, no walks and six strikeouts to lower his ERA to 1.69.
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“He was the McKenzie we saw against the Tigers [in his debut],” Indians temporary manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said. “He was composed and knew what he had to do, and he executed his pitches. He didn't fall behind in the count.”
A two-run homer by Tyler Naquin in the second inning gave McKenzie early breathing room, before Naquin’s three-run home run in the ninth sealed McKenzie’s second career win. The right-hander claimed that pregame nerves are still present before each start, but opponents are 8-for-53 (.151) against him so far.
“I don’t think that’s ever going to go away,” McKenzie said. “But definitely going out there and feeling comfortable in terms of treating it as a learning experience and going out there and competing when mistakes happen. And not getting too high and not getting too low and trusting the guys around me that they’ll be able to pick me up and I’ll be able to go deeper in the game and stuff like that.”
McKenzie was fueled with adrenaline in his tremendous debut, but the emotion may not have been up to the same magnitude in his second trip to the mound. He’s been kept to an 80-85 pitch count in each of his first three starts. And while it got him through six innings in his first and third outings, he was replaced in the fifth last Friday against the Cardinals after giving up two runs on three hits and three walks. But Indians pitching coach Carl Willis thought he knew the answer.
On Sunday, McKenzie threw his usual bullpen session in preparation for Wednesday’s start. Willis had noticed that the intensity in the bullpen after his debut may have been a little down, so the Tribe’s coaching staff had McKenzie amp up the intensity enough for him to consistently repeat his delivery like he did when the excitement was flowing in his debut. It clearly paid off.
“We talked about some stuff beforehand in terms of like going into the bullpen and trying to make it a little more game-like,” McKenzie said, “so when I go out there for my next start, tonight, just so I feel a little more comfortable and feeling my pitches out. And I think it helped a little bit.”
In the middle of a pennant race, McKenzie is trying to learn the most minute details, like timing his pregame warmups in the bullpen so he’s not sitting for 35 minutes before he takes the rubber (like at St. Louis) or running late to the mound (like Wednesday). Or even how to shake off a moment like when the ball rolled between his legs in the sixth inning and shortstop Francisco Lindor bailed him out with a barehanded play.
“I wanted Frankie to make the play,” McKenzie joked. “I whiffed it completely. Through my legs, missed my glove, everything. … Just having faith in the guys behind me that even when I mess up, they can make plays -- great plays -- behind me and kind of support me. That makes me feel comfortable.”
Even though McKenzie hadn’t pitched in a game since August 2018, due to injuries, and hadn’t made it higher than Double-A before getting hurt, the Indians are not surprised by his seamless transition to the big leagues.
“It's explosive,” Naquin said. “Everything's sharp. … It doesn't surprise me the performances he's putting up there.”
Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.