Triston so good he 'felt bad' for Ohtani (3 K's)

August 22nd, 2021

CLEVELAND -- This is the the Indians have been waiting to see.

The right-hander sat atop the club’s Top 30 Prospects list on MLB Pipeline for the last few years. Despite McKenzie battling through a handful of injuries, Cleveland was optimistic that his future would still pan out. Although a little bit of doubt may have entered some fans’ minds about his potential at the beginning of the season, McKenzie showed just how much he’s capable of in the Indians’ 5-1 victory over the Angels on Saturday afternoon at Progressive Field.

“Watching him from the side, there's a real tension-free method, he's just nice and loose and the ball comes out hot,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Good for him. Seems like a nice kid from a distance. He's something to be reckoned with in the future.”

Something changed for McKenzie his last time out. The 24-year-old is certainly pounding the strike zone more than he had at the beginning of the year, when he led all Major League pitchers in walks per nine innings by a landslide. He started taking steps in the right direction after he reset during a short stint in Triple-A. In his first 12 starts, he owned a 7.3 walks-per-nine-innings ratio. Since the All-Star break, it’s just 1.5. And it wasn’t until his start in Detroit last weekend that everything truly started to click.

“I tried to get all my walks out early,” McKenzie joked. “It's more just a progression from the beginning of the season to now. Just building blocks. Learning that not throwing in the zone isn't going to get you outs. Learning that not throwing in the zone isn't going to get you deep into the game. It's more just understanding what this team needs to get wins, what I need to do to get wins consistently is to throw in-zone.”

After carrying a perfect game into the eighth inning against the Tigers last Sunday, McKenzie continued to cruise on Saturday against the Angels, tossing seven-plus frames, getting charged with one run on just two hits with eight strikeouts and one walk (the last batter he faced, who scored). Over his last 15 innings, he’s given up just three hits and fanned 19 batters. He’s learning to adapt to the league and establish an effective game plan. Last time, it was his fastball that was elite. This time, his curveball took center stage.

“I think he’s just learning his craft,” Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale said. “Confidence is a factor, but I think there’s a development aspect that he’s going through and making a good step.”

That curveball induced six whiffs -- three of which were used to strike out American League MVP candidate Shohei Ohtani three times.

“I kind of felt bad for him, just because I don't think I threw any nasty pitches like that to anybody else,” McKenzie said.

Indians slugger Franmil Reyes joked with his hitting coach this week that he needed a GPS because he was lost at the plate. Earlier this season, McKenzie could’ve used similar navigational assistance when the mound seemed like a foreign destination. He walked 39 batters in his first 42 1/3 frames.

Many focused on his confidence, though he clarified on Saturday that his confidence was never his issue; it was the lack of comfortability of being at the Major League level that was throwing him off.

“I feel I've always had confidence in my stuff, I've always had confidence in myself,” McKenzie said. “It's more just a comfortability thing. Coming up and not wanting to be the rookie that's over-stepping his bounds or not being the guy that's going out there and doing too much. Just finding my place and feeling comfortable with the guys and being able to go out there and perform and doing it not for myself, more for the guys around me.”

McKenzie did admit earlier in the season that one free pass caused him to worry, instead of locking him in to attack the next hitter. And after making his debut in an empty ballpark in 2020, the crowd’s emotions were weighing on him.

But the same right-hander who once said the crowd was overwhelming him at the beginning of the year took a slow walk off the mound on Saturday afternoon, watching all 31,406 members of the largest Progressive Field crowd of the season rise to their feet in honor of his outstanding efforts in back-to-back outings.

“On top of having a good start, it's kind of like a euphoric feeling that people are like physically there recognizing it,” McKenzie said. “The stands were packed tonight, so I tried to take it in. How often do you get a standing O?”