CLEVELAND -- This isn’t the way Indians starter Triston McKenzie envisioned ending his stellar second half of the 2021 season.
After cruising through the majority of his most recent stint in the Majors since getting recalled from Triple-A on July 9, McKenzie has turned in back-to-back clunkers, allowing three runs on five hits in 2 1/3 innings with three walks and a hit batter in the Indians’ 5-2 loss to the White Sox on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field. Cleveland now needs to win five of its final seven games to avoid its first losing season since 2012.
“He struggled with his command,” Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said. “He walked the first hitter -- he was up in the zone. I thought it was a struggle early. Then he made some pretty good pitches into that second inning. But the hit batters, the three walks. I was looking up, and it was like eight men on base in 2 1/3 [innings].”
Describing a player’s season as a “rollercoaster” has become a cliché in baseball, but there may be no better way to describe the 24-year-old right-hander’s year. His dramatic highs and lows identically mirror a ride like Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster. In his first 11 appearances of the season, McKenzie sat at rock bottom, permitting 39 walks in his first 42 1/3 frames with a 6.38 ERA. But his sudden rise to dominance was as dramatic as the 90-degree incline of the infamous Cedar Point ride, pitching to a 2.96 ERA while holding opponents to a .160 average over his next 11 starts following the quick demotion to Triple-A.
But that may have been McKenzie’s peak for the 2021 season. After having a brief second to catch his breath at the top of the hill, his last two trips to the rubber have resembled Top Thrill Dragster’s downhill plummet back to earth. Sunday marked his shortest outing since he failed to escape the first inning on June 12 -- his last rocky start before he settled in on the mound. He’s worked just 6 2/3 frames over his last two starts, pitching to a 13.50 ERA in that span.
“I feel like this year has been, as much as last year, my break into the Majors,” McKenzie said. “This year has been my rookie year and there has been a lot of learning experiences here. I feel like going out there today, going out there this whole year has just been me kind of taking it in and being able to stockpile those experiences for next year.”
For a young hurler who has been hurt for so many of his Minor League seasons and returned to participate in a shortened 60-game season in 2020, the workload McKenzie has taken on this year could have resulted in some fatigue. The Indians placed him on the 10-day IL on Aug. 25 with right shoulder fatigue to skip a start in an attempt to manage his innings. He’s thrown 137 1/3 frames combined between the Majors and Triple-A this year, just shy of his personal high set in 2017 with High-A Lynchburg (143 innings).
McKenzie’s durability has been a concern over the last few years, considering he’s battled through a handful of injuries. But despite the number of innings he has under his belt this season, he’s confident that fatigue has not affected his performance over his last two outings. Instead, he and his skipper chalked it up to the regular bumps a player endures throughout a season -- especially in a rookie campaign.
“I actually feel very good, very strong,” McKenzie said. “Kind of working through some stuff.”
“I thought he felt pretty good, and this is just kind of part of the growing pains and you learn from it,” Hale said. “It's something that we do keep in the back of our minds because we know that this has been a workload that has been a little stronger and higher than previous years.”
But for now, McKenzie will likely get one more start in 2021, and he’ll look to prove that there’s no reason to panic heading into the offseason. Then, he’ll be able to take the lessons he’s learned from his rookie campaign and translate that into a smoother ride in 2022.