September 27, 2022

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McKenzie's scoreless start a sign of maturity

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Righty mixes his pitches more in longest outing of season, shows mental toughness
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OAKLAND — If a day on which Guardians starter Triston McKenzie didn’t have his best command resulted in a scoreless, 6 1/3-inning performance, it’ll be exciting to see what the 24-year-old righty can do when he’s on.

In the Guardians’ 7-3 victory over the A’s on Sunday afternoon, McKenzie reminded everyone of the hurler he was in the second half of last season. The win secured the team’s third sweep of the season after it was swept in back-to-back series heading into Oakland.

“The game is fluid. I say it all the time,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “Now we’ve got to move on. We’ve been very streaky. To this point the down streaks have outweighed the good, but hopefully we’re in the midst of changing [the streakiness].”

McKenzie played quite the role in changing that tone, allowing four hits with one walk, one hit batter and seven strikeouts, as he worked into the seventh frame for the first time this year on a season-high 96 pitches. As effortless as the performance sounds on paper, Francona explained that McKenzie worked around some command issues at times.

“He scattered some pitches from time to time, but he always fought himself back and got into the count and got outs,” Francona said. “He didn’t give up much. There were times where he lost the strike zone, but he reeled it back in in a hurry, as opposed to three to four hitters.”

Just this simple observation explains the tremendous growth McKenzie has made in his development in a short span of time. The concept of “reeling it back in in a hurry” was something that was lost for McKenzie at this time last season.

After making his first Opening Day roster in 2021, McKenzie lost the strike zone, racking up 35 walks in his first 10 outings, prompting a trip down to Triple-A Columbus. He admitted at the time that his struggles were in his head and he couldn’t pull himself out of it. But after a reset in the Minors, he came back and was electric in the second half. On Sunday, he showed that those mental hurdles are much easier for him to overcome — something that didn’t surprise backstop Luke Maile, who was catching McKenzie for the first time.

“Having not caught him at all in Spring Training or ever before, you just never really know what to expect with a guy,” Maile said. “And he kind of had the presence of a winner, just from pitch one, so it was easy for me. Like I said, when the guy’s got that type of stuff and that mindset, you stay out of his way, you know?”

Maile said there was no need to do anything to help McKenzie get back in the zone; the right-hander knows how to fight his way back. And McKenzie learned after his last outing in Anaheim that he needed to turn to his offspeed pitches more frequently — something that has brought him a tremendous amount of success so far this year.

McKenzie entered with opponents going 1-for-13 (.077) with six strikeouts against his curveball. The only hit he gave up on the offering was a bloop single that fell between José Ramírez and Richie Palacios in left field that had a .110 expected batting average.

“For me to be successful, a lot of it is mixing my pitches up and keeping guys guessing,” McKenzie said. “After the Anaheim start, I felt that I needed to incorporate more of my offspeed and get guys off the heater.”

And that approach, in return, made his fastball play better.

“It just seemed like every borderline pitch he threw was on a line,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “The execution of that was there for him today. His fastball, it seems as if it just planes out at the bottom and stays there. He got a lot of low strikes with that fastball today, and that makes that slider and breaking ball more effective.”

There’s a reason the Guardians had no problem being patient with McKenzie when he was a prospect battling through one injury after the next. The team knows the potential he has and his maturity and development over the last year gives them every reason to believe that 2022 will be a breakout season for him. Sunday may have been the starting point.

“[He has] just like really powerful stuff, really violent, coming-at-you type stuff,” Maile said. “To call pitches for a guy like that is awfully fun because even when he’s got something else in mind, it’s really that you can’t go wrong when he executes all of them.”

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