McKenzie rises to occasion to sink Minnesota

30 minutes ago

MINNEAPOLIS — Guardians starter Triston McKenzie is proving he can handle the spotlight.

Backed by a terrific seven-inning outing from McKenzie and an early two-run homer from Amed Rosario, Cleveland secured a 6-4 win over Minnesota on Saturday night at Target Field, creating more separation with the-now-third-place Twins in the American League Central race.

With a White Sox win over the A’s, the Guardians maintained a 1 1/2-game lead over Chicago.

“Every game right now, no matter who you’re playing, [has extra weight to it],” Cleveland catcher Luke Maile said. “But certainly when you’re playing a team that’s chasing you.”

The Guardians are in a stretch of critical games over the next few weeks against the Twins and White Sox. As the end of the regular season draws nearer, the intensity of each contest heightens. And McKenzie is proving that he can be a guy his team can turn to.

This was the type of rise that was expected of Cleveland’s former top prospect, but he’s found ways to be even better and more consistent than advertised. The 25-year-old righty went from battling through injuries in 2018 and ’19, to a shortened season in ’20, to getting demoted to Triple-A with zero command of his pitches in the middle of ’21, to suddenly being a rock for the Guardians’ rotation.

“With good players or pitchers, you see them start to make adjustments, like his work in-between,” manager Terry Francona said. “Not that he’s not ever been a hard worker, but I think guys find another gear and they start to understand what it takes to be consistent.”

The first step for McKenzie was figuring out how to stay healthy. He proved to himself last year that he can make it through a season without some sort of injury. He just needed to know he could do so while remaining consistent and efficient all throughout the year.

With only three-and-a-half weeks left in the regular season, McKenzie is certainly on pace to do just that.

“I think I said it a lot last year, where I think my main goal is to be healthy,” he said. “Being able to go out there and play in a 162-game season, regardless of if you’re starting or playing the field or relieving, it’s tough. So being able to be out there and be healthy for six months, seven months, is very huge.”

Saturday’s start proved a lot about Cleveland’s next rising star. McKenzie entered having held opponents to a .198 average this season, which ranked the fourth best among qualified AL pitchers. Yet that success didn’t always translate against the Twins — one of the teams the Guardians know they have to beat in order to make the postseason.

Prior to Saturday, McKenzie pitched to an 8.31 ERA against Minnesota this season and a 7.05 mark over his career. But as he’s figuring out how to grow into a big-time role, he’s learning how to step up in big-time games.

“The big games is the key,” Maile said. “I don’t care who you are, what your ERA is, if you’re a young guy or even a veteran, you pitch in a big game, there’s some emotions that take over. He came out and dominated.”

McKenzie tossed seven scoreless frames, giving up six hits with two walks and five strikeouts. His curveball remained as lethal as it has been all year and his heater averaged 93 mph — nearly a full mile per hour faster than his season average.

“His velo was there from the jump today,” Maile said. “When he establishes a floor with that four-seamer, it’s challenging for right-handed hitters.”

This is the type of performance (along with the credibility McKenzie has built since the season started) that gives the Guardians every reason to believe they can lean on him in October. If Cleveland can hang on to win the AL Central and compete in a three-game Wild Card round, there’s no doubt that one of those three games will have McKenzie on the rubber.

The Guardians know they have to get there first. But Saturday’s win was a big help in bettering their odds.

“I think the vibe in the clubhouse right now is these are must-win games,” McKenzie said. “[The Twins and White Sox] are the two teams we’re in contention with and I think second place in this division doesn’t make the playoffs, so that’s all that’s on our mind.”