CLEVELAND -- Preventing the snowball effect is what starter Triston McKenzie has been trying to perfect all season. The Indians knew that the 23-year-old would run into some hiccups along the way, but his inability to stop the bleeding when things would go wrong played a large role in his demotion to Triple-A. But on Monday, he proved he can bounce back from a tough frame.
After a four-run second inning that gave the White Sox the lead, McKenzie wasn’t rattled. Instead, he found his groove. He responded with a strikeout and a groundout in the third before a stretch of eight consecutive strikeouts, setting a franchise record, in the Indians’ 8-6 extra-innings loss to the White Sox in Game 1 of the doubleheader at Progressive Field.
“I think what we’re seeing is when he does have a walk, he doesn’t turn it into two or three,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “He’s gathering himself and he’s coming back and using his best stuff. That’s a big step for him.”
This time, the rough frame wasn’t solely McKenzie’s fault. A walk, a double and an infield single back to the mound that McKenzie held for too long loaded the bases with one out. From there, his defense didn’t pick him up. A double down the right-field line scored two, but second baseman Cesar Hernandez bobbled the relay throw to permit another run to score. And after McKenzie walked Tim Anderson, he picked him off, but the team allowed a runner on third to score before the tag for the third out was made.
“All but the one inning, I thought he was really good,” Francona said. “He missed some bats. He threw a good curveball. He attacked with a fastball and got it by their barrel for the most part. In that inning, a walk, there’s a chopper that he kind of looked back to third, so we didn’t get the out at first. That was a big play. That would’ve been two outs, and then they got a big double that cleared the bases.”
This is when the wheels would usually fall off the cart for McKenzie. However, he came back in the third with something to prove.
“I feel like in the second inning I didn’t necessarily get ahead of myself and start thinking about the next batter or the runners on base,” McKenzie said. “It was settling in and realizing it was a 4-2 game. It’s still a close game and we have a chance.”
His record-setting eight consecutive strikeouts started with José Abreu to end the third and extended through the sixth, when Jake Lamb became his 10th strikeout of the afternoon. It marked McKenzie’s second career double-digit strikeout performance -- his first coming in his MLB debut against the Tigers on Aug. 22, 2020 -- in a season-high 5 1/3 innings.
“I think the biggest thing was I was getting ahead of guys,” McKenzie said. “My fastball was working up in the zone, curveball down, my slider worked, too. I think it was just kind of keeping them guessing, and I credit a lot of that to [catcher] René [Rivera].”
McKenzie’s pitching line of five earned runs on four hits may not be the most attractive on paper, but it certainly doesn’t reflect the strides he’s continued to make. Pairing that with his scoreless start on Wednesday (his only other outing since his demotion), McKenzie has already proven to himself and the team that he’s making the changes needed to be successful at the big league level.
“I feel like the past two starts,” McKenzie said, “have been more of an indication of who I would like to be as a pitcher in terms of like how I attack hitters and how I can actually get outs from the first inning to the fifth inning to hopefully the ninth. I hopefully will just continue going in this direction.”