Lack of situational hitting spoils McKenzie’s strong start

4:20 AM UTC

CHICAGO — Ahead of Friday’s loss to the White Sox, Guardians manager Stephen Vogt was asked what he preaches to his players to ensure they don’t get too overanxious while at the plate with runners in scoring position. His message to his young team was simple — do whatever you can to “make that guy from third base touch home plate.”

“A lot of these guys want to get the big hit for their teammates,” Vogt said Friday. “It’s not a selfish ambition. It’s, ‘I want to come through for the boys.’ What happens then is you start to get a little bigger, you start to do too much.”

While that hadn’t been an issue for the Guardians heading into their four-game set at Guaranteed Rate Field, it’s become a common theme throughout it. Saturday night featured the third straight instance of some troublesome situational hitting spoiling a strong showing from a starter during Cleveland’s 3-1 loss to the White Sox.

“We’re grinding a little bit offensively right now, and we’ve got to find a way,” Vogt said. “Our guys just need to relax. Everybody’s pressing, everybody’s trying to step up even more, and so I feel like we’re trying to do a little too much.”

It’s an understandable circumstance for Cleveland’s hitters to find themselves in, especially in the absence of outfielder Steven Kwan. Finding a way to replicate both his MLB-leading .353 batting average and his .845 OPS with runners in scoring position is hardly an easy feat.

Still, the Guardians entered Saturday slashing .287/.373/.455 as a team with runners in scoring position, with an .828 OPS bested by only six clubs in the Majors. Situational hitting hasn’t been a trending issue for Cleveland this season, but the lack of it in this series has plagued the team’s ability to pull ahead in close contests.

Saturday’s instance occurred in the third, when rookie Kyle Manzardo doubled to left field with one out and then advanced to third on Mike Clevinger’s wild pitch to Gabriel Arias. Though Arias battled back from an 0-2 count, his strikeout, followed by another from Estevan Florial, brought the threat to an end.

It wasn’t the first time Cleveland struggled to bring home a crucial run this series. Will Brennan led off the third inning of Friday’s game with a triple, only to remain at third after Brayan Rocchio’s groundout followed a pair of strikeouts from Arias and Austin Hedges. A pair of two-out singles from José Ramírez and Josh Naylor put runners at first and third in the sixth on Friday, but a Ramón Laureano strikeout closed the frame.

Down 3-0 on Thursday night, the Guardians loaded the bases in the seventh with three straight singles, but Bo Naylor and Tyler Freeman both struck out before Manzardo’s inning-ending groundout.

“I feel like we get somebody on, and we’re not continuing the inning,” Vogt said. “So we’ve just got to keep getting traffic and keep the ball moving. We just need to get back to using our strengths. Putting the ball in play, that contact that we’re known for.”

Much of the Guardians’ troubles in this series has come against Chicago’s starters. Though Cleveland has collected 15 hits in 16 2/3 innings against the White Sox rotation, the team has only pushed across one run in that span while striking out 19 times without drawing a walk.

Considering how well the Guardians’ rotation has pitched in the series, it’s safe to say just a few clutch hits may have changed a lot. Triston McKenzie was the latest Cleveland starter to ease the burden on a beleaguered bullpen, throwing 6 2/3 innings while allowing two runs (one earned) and striking out five.

McKenzie was quick to insist that there was no need to worry about the Guardians’ three-game skid impacting their mentality moving forward, a thought that has echoed throughout the team’s clubhouse during this series.

“These games don’t define us,” McKenzie said. “Moving forward, that’s how we have to keep thinking. It’s the game of baseball. You win some, you lose some.”

For the Guardians, winning some will require getting back to their contact-heavy approach at the plate, especially with runners in scoring position. Kwan’s absence will be felt for at least a few more weeks. But if you ask Vogt, the solution to Cleveland’s situational struggles may be as simple as his hitters trying not to replicate what Kwan brings to the table.

“We just need everybody to be themselves,” Vogt said. “You don’t have to be anything more than who you are. We’ll get back to where we want to be.”