Dream debut for McKenzie: 10 K's and a W

August 23rd, 2020

CLEVELAND -- One week ago, received a text from a buddy that read, “I had a dream last night you [were] making your debut. And you K’d up 10.” McKenzie responded, “I’m [trying to] turn that into a reality.”

Seven days later, he did.

McKenzie tossed six strong innings, allowing just one run on two hits with 10 strikeouts in the Indians’ 6-1 victory over the Tigers on Saturday night at Progressive Field.

“He needs to go play the lotto,” McKenzie said of his prophetic friend. “Shoutout to my friend Todd Isaacs, he gave me my nickname, ‘Dr. Sticks.’”

McKenzie’s 10 strikeouts are the second most by an Indians player in their Major League debut, trailing only Luis Tiant’s 11 in 1964. The 23-year-old also became the first pitcher with a double-digit-strikeout performance in his MLB debut since Freddy Peralta (13) in 2018, and he is the 28th pitcher since at least 1901 with at least 10 strikeouts in his first career game.

“I’m so happy for him,” catcher said. “It’s exciting. He’s got a great future. The good thing about him, he goes right after hitters. That’s impressive to watch.”

The nerves
Over the last 24 hours, McKenzie reached out to any person he could think of who might be able to calm his nerves. With and at the alternate training site, the Indians needed a fifth starter for Saturday’s game and made the decision on Thursday to put McKenzie, who hasn’t pitched in a professional game since August 2018 due to injuries, on the mound.

Though Indians temporary manager Sandy Alomar Jr. said he couldn’t tell McKenzie was nervous at all, Pérez said it was obvious when the two headed for the bullpen before the game.

“It helped keep me grounded that a lot of the people that I wanted to watch this game and I wanted to pitch for definitely helped relax me and bring me back to center,” McKenzie said, “which was mainly my family, my girlfriend, even the guys in the clubhouse. [Shane] Bieber, [Aaron] Civale, they talked to me beforehand and gave me a rundown about [how] everybody’s been through it. ‘Just go out there and be you.’”

“I know he was a little nervous. You could see it on his face,” Pérez said. “He told me, ‘Hey, I rate my pitches: fastball, breaking ball, slider, change.’ I said, ‘Alright.’ I didn’t want to put a lot of information on the guy. I wanted him to go out there and be himself. But he was outstanding tonight.”

The stuff
The Indians haven’t had many chances to see McKenzie pitch in person, but they knew that his two biggest weapons were his fastball and curveball. It took all of six innings for McKenzie to prove just how accurate that evaluation was.

According to Statcast, he threw 46 fastballs that averaged 94.5 mph and maxed out at 96.5 mph. Of the 26 swings on the heater, 11 were whiffs (42 percent whiff rate), while nine of his 10 strikeouts were on the four-seamer. His second-most-used pitch was his curveball (18), which prompted two whiffs on four swings.

"He got a lot of strikeouts with fastballs in the zone,” Tigers starter Matthew Boyd said. “I think that tells you how electric his stuff is. He pitched really, really well tonight. To do that in a debut, that's impressive.”

The only strikeout of the night that wasn’t on the fastball was the first of his big league career. In the opening inning, McKenzie fanned Miguel Cabrera -- who McKenzie, being from southern Florida, grew up watching -- on a slider, before striking him out again in the fourth on a heater.

“He’s literally a living legend down there,” McKenzie said. “Miggy was a huge part of that Marlins team. Growing up, I was [5 years old] when Miggy was starting to come up, so for me to face him when I’m now getting into the league was huge for me.”

The lone mistake
McKenzie’s only mistake of the night came in the fourth inning on a first-pitch changeup to Willi Castro, a friend of his who he played with at Double-A Akron in 2018.

“Sore subject,” McKenzie joked. “Me and Willi are actually close. ... I talked to him a little bit before today’s game. The fact that he was the one who hit the home run off me was, I guess, very ironic, but I got him back there in the end. We’re gonna go back and forth about that, definitely.”

“He got me with two changeups [first at-bat], and I knew that he was going to start with a changeup again,” Castro said. “So I was just waiting for that to get good contact."

The next step
For now, McKenzie will take his game ball and lineup card home as souvenirs and wait to hear what his immediate future will be with the club. Clevinger and Plesac must remain in Lake County, Ohio, until at least Monday, but the Indians could still choose to give McKenzie another start.

“They’re still working through that,” Alomar said. “[Pitching coach Carl Willis] is talking to [the front office] about it. But with that performance, I don’t see why not get another opportunity. But that’s a decision that the organization has to make with [manager Terry Francona] also.”