DETROIT -- Triston McKenzie was four outs away from perfection on Sunday afternoon for the Indians. He’d set down the first 23 Tigers he faced while dipping into personally uncharted waters.
McKenzie had never completed more than seven innings in a game. He’d never thrown more than 93 pitches in a start. However, there he was, staring history in the eye with two outs in the eighth inning.
Tigers shortstop Harold Castro had something to say about that, though. He lined a crisp single to right field to end the quest for the first Indians perfect game since Len Barker beat the Blue Jays, 3-0, in Cleveland on May 15, 1981.
“He beat me,” McKenzie said of Castro’s hit. “I think I made a good pitch, and he beat me. I should’ve made a better pitch. I just feel like I could’ve got it past him.”
McKenzie, 24, from Brooklyn, N.Y., struck out Willi Castro before walking off the mound in the eighth, showing little emotion. Then, teammate Ernie Clement told him in the dugout that it was on this exact date in 2012 that the Mariners’ Félix Hernández threw the 23rd and most recent perfecto in MLB history.
“That Félix Hernández statistic was very crazy,” said McKenzie. “The fact that nine years to the day he threw the last perfect game. ... That would’ve been some very cool baseball history right there.”
While recalling it again in the post-game Zoom conference, McKenzie smiled, dropped back his head, and growled in frustration. He ended up throwing 106 pitches (73 strikes) while striking out a career-high 11 (all on swinging third strikes) in the 11-0 win.
Indians acting manager DeMarlo Hale had a tough decision to make if McKenzie had stayed perfect: Did he potentially jeopardize his young right-hander’s arm by having him throw 20 or 30 pitches more than he ever had? Or did he break McKenzie’s heart by handing the ball to a reliever?
“Perfect game, no-hitter, that don’t come around,” Hale said. “I didn’t think he was laboring. He wasn’t going deep into counts. I had a reason to sway to keep him going. He was working ahead, efficient. That stayed in the front of my mind: ‘If it comes to it, I’m going to see how far he can go.’ And I’m really sorry he didn’t get it. It would’ve been special.”
McKenzie said the one word to sum up the outing was “comfortable” and that he “felt strong all the way through.” He added that he was ready to take on the Tigers in the ninth inning, but instead closer Emmanuel Clase pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to preserve the one-hit shutout. That move was easy to make for Hale.
McKenzie entered the game with a 3-6 record and 4.92 ERA during his two seasons with Cleveland, and had given no hint of throwing such a gem -- he was 1-5 with a 5.66 ERA in 2021 prior to his near-perfect outing. But he had been pitching deeper into games and more effectively in recent starts, and came up big for the Indians on Sunday afternoon.
“He’s developing to be a consistent Major League pitcher -- particularly with his breaking ball,” said Hale. “Over his last starts, he’s been good.”
In three of McKenzie’s previous four starts, he went at least six innings and allowed no more than three earned runs.
“It was the icing on the cake for a really good month,” said catcher Austin Hedges.
Hale said McKenzie and Hedges seemed to “be ahead of hitters” in setting them up with the right calls. McKenzie was particularly devastating with fastballs and curves, but also kept hitters off balance with his slider.
The manager was impressed by McKenzie “staying true” to his teammates by cheering their offensive exploits. José Ramírez hit a three-run homer -- Cleveland is now 26-4 when he hits one out -- and Amed Rosario had a three-run triple as the club scored all 11 of its runs by sending 19 to the plate in the second and third innings combined.
Hedges said McKenzie was more talkative than he was between innings, showing no signs of superstition or nerves.
The catcher recalled his message to his pitcher: “Treat it like it’s a two-run game.”
When Hedges ran down Jeimer Candelario's popup and caught it while running into Detroit’s dugout fence for the first out of the eighth, they were five outs away from perfection. Candelario had been on the ball and pulled a would-be double foul down the right-field line during the at-bat.
Then, Renato Núñez hit a comebacker on a full-count pitch and McKenzie tossed it to first to set up the ultimately disappointing meeting with Castro.
McKenzie had fanned five of six Tigers in the sixth and seventh innings and was particularly pumped up in the seventh, when he struck out the side -- Jacob Robson, Jonathan Schoop and Miguel Cabrera, who still sits on homer No. 499.
“I was very impressed by the ‘God Bless America’ singing,” McKenzie said of the song he heard performed before the inning. “It really locked me in. ... There was so much energy in that stadium that it really let itself out.”
There have been only 23 perfect games in MLB history, and the first one in the Modern Era (since 1900) occurred when Cy Young hurled a perfecto in 1904. McKenzie flirted with joining that club, but had to settle for spearheading a one-hit shutout on a day when he had everything going.