Despite short start, McKenzie shows positives heading into 2024

September 30th, 2023

DETROIT -- Guardians starter sat in the clubhouse at the team’s complex in Goodyear, Ariz., in Spring Training, planning what his warmup music would be in the summer months at Progressive Field. He wanted a unique vibe for different parts of the season. He never thought that he’d spend all but four starts on the sidelines.

Those plans were abolished in his last Cactus League tuneup when he felt discomfort in his shoulder. He learned he had an upper teres major muscle strain, and his long road to recovery began.

He was finally able to conclude this grueling chapter of his career on Saturday afternoon by ending his 2023 season with a one-run, 4 1/3-inning performance in the Guardians’ 8-0 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park.

As the ultimate competitor, McKenzie wanted to see instant success. In his first start after returning from his teres major muscle strain on June 4, he did just that, fanning 10 batters in five scoreless innings. But when he went back for his second start on June 10, he wasn’t the same, and he learned he had an elbow strain that would put him back on the injured list. He wouldn’t return again until Sept. 24, and he had to figure out how to grind through another few months of rehab.

“I think injuries are tough,” McKenzie said. “I think being out for the second time was kind of disheartening as a competitor, especially as someone that wants to come out and contribute to the team. I think it’s more just knowing that you got to keep your head down, and if this is something I want to pursue as a career and for a length of time, it's something I have to deal with and bounce back from stronger."

McKenzie didn’t get the time he would’ve wanted to prove he came back stronger. He made two starts in this final week of the season. After his shaky 1 2/3 innings against the Orioles, he allowed one run on three hits with three walks and one strikeout against the Tigers.

“I thought his command was in and out,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “But when he left the mound, I asked him, ‘How’s your arm?’ He said, ‘Good.’ I said, ‘OK.’ Those are big steps for him to take.”

McKenzie retired the first six batters he faced, but in the third, he started to battle his command, allowing a single and a walk. Miguel Cabrera hit a double in the fourth and was plated on a triple by Matt Vierling before two more walks in the fifth ended McKenzie’s afternoon after 77 pitches (47 strikes).

“He's as fresh as he's going to be because he has missed most of the year,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “Trying to go into the game plan saying, 'Hey, make him throw strikes,' and then when he throws strikes and you get into leverage [counts], what do you do? You've got to start to make him pay for being inside the strike zone.”

Regardless of only having enough time for just two starts before the season came to a close, this was needed to prove that McKenzie was healthy enough to get back on the rubber. He visited multiple doctors over the summer after straining his elbow to determine if surgery was necessary. When he decided against a procedural route, it was hard to know for sure how he’d recover. For now, he’s demonstrated that he can pitch without surgery and he can now have a plan going into the winter.

“I definitely think it gives me a little more clarity in terms of how I’d like to attack the offseason,” McKenzie said. "I think it’s about just coming in next year, feeling a little bit better and trying to go out there and do it day in and day out.”

If all goes to plan, the Guardians know just how effective McKenzie can be. He pitched to a 2.96 ERA in 31 games (30 starts) in 2022. And that type of success, along with what up-and-comers Tanner Bibee, Gavin Williams or Logan Allen can bring to the table and this rotation, could be really exciting moving forward.

“[McKenzie's] not in midseason form,” Francona said. “But those are two huge [starts] for him, and now he can go home and get ready for what everyone hopes is a good, long, solid year.”