CLEVELAND -- Triston McKenzie does not dig the long ball.
On a day when the Guardians were hoping to turn the page on a sloppy weekend series to focus on setting a more energetic tone against the first-place Twins, McKenzie couldn’t keep the ball in the ballpark, resulting in Cleveland’s 11-1 loss to Minnesota on Monday night at Progressive Field, extending the Guardians’ losing streak to five games.
McKenzie’s seven earned runs tied his career high, and it marked the first time he’s given up at least six earned runs in consecutive outings. Monday was the same story it’s been for his last eight starts: Giving up home runs. The right-hander gave up a three-run homer to Gary Sánchez and a two-run blast to Nick Gordon, totaling 15 home runs in McKenzie’s last eight starts after he had given up just one homer in his first six trips to the rubber to start the season.
“I think it’s probably a little different every time out,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I thought tonight his stuff was really good. Even in his last inning, the ball was going through the zone really well. He just caught too much of the plate with too many pitches, and some lineups will make you pay more than others.”
The pace in which McKenzie has given up home runs puts him in rare company, as he joins a short list of Cleveland hurlers who have given up at least 15 blasts in an eight-start span in a single season, joining Josh Tomlin (2018) and Charles Nagy (1998). Of the 36 runs McKenzie has allowed this season, 22 have come via the long ball (61.1%).
“I think home runs are a part of the game,” McKenzie said. “It’s more solo homers are OK because it’s one run. But when you allow those to compound and you give up hits or you walk guys beforehand and one-run home runs turn into two- or three-run home runs, that’s when they really change the game.”
After beginning the year with a 2.65 ERA over his first nine games (eight starts), McKenzie owns a 6.44 ERA (21 earned runs in 29 1/3 innings) in June. But neither Francona nor McKenzie have found a concerning trend during this stretch that would cause them to think these struggles should continue. And if you ask his opponents, they haven’t found a specific fault to focus on, either.
“He doesn’t have many outings like that,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “You go back and look at the work he’s been doing, he’s very challenging. He’s got a fastball with tons of carry. Every pitch that he has is a tough pitch to square up.
“All that being said, we’re not going to take any of what we’re doing right now against him for granted. We’ll have to get ready. We’re going to see him again at some point soon.”
Each rocky performance is going to be highlighted this series because of the pressure that comes with playing five straight games against the top team in the American League Central. No one can win the division in June, but you can certainly dig yourself into a hole that would be challenging to get out of by the end of the series.
The Guardians entered this series two games out of first place. In the worst-case scenario, they would sit seven games behind the Twins if they were swept in this series, eliminating all the work Cleveland put in during its hot stretch at the beginning of the month to overcome a 7 1/2-game deficit.
“You can't win every game,” said Guardians utility man Ernie Clement, who pitched the ninth inning. “We've got to find a way to get back and play the kind of baseball we're used to playing. It was going to happen at some point. We've just got to get out of it and get back to the way we play ball.”
If the Guardians can turn the page quickly on their five-game losing streak and rediscover the energy they had during their three-city road trip, the team can make sure the division is still well within reach by the time the Twins leave town on Thursday night.
“I feel like we’ve still been fighting hard, but I think a lot of energy we had on the road trip has been kind of quieted down,” McKenzie said. “I think it’s more just scoring early and just being together as a team. I don’t think we’ve changed much. It’s more just going out there and showing we can do it.”