Williams looking sharp and ‘gonna go up from here’

2:41 AM UTC

DETROIT — The Guardians’ offense was quiet. The fate of the game was determined by a Brayan Rocchio error at shortstop in the eighth that looked like a tailor-made, inning-ending double play. But Cleveland didn’t walk away completely empty-handed after its 1-0 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park.

If nothing else, starter Gavin Williams looked more like the version of himself that excited everyone who watched him last year, tossing 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his second start since coming off the injured list. And for a rotation in need of some help, this couldn’t be a more welcoming sight.

“I thought Gavin was great,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “Velo was obviously there, [and he was] hitting his spots with his fastball. Both breaking balls were really good. Even threw a nice changeup in there.”

Williams made his first start of the season on Wednesday after missing the start of the season with right elbow discomfort. He wasn’t fully built up, and the Guardians knew to expect some rust, but it was still hard to get an idea of what to expect moving forward with his five-run, two-walk performance against the White Sox. His velocity was there, topping out at 98.9 mph on the radar, but his slider wasn’t effective and he couldn’t get past the fourth inning.

This start was a different story.

Williams averaged 97.5 mph on his four-seamer (up from the 95.7 mph it averaged last season) and topped out at 99.1 mph. His slider induced three swings and misses (compared to zero last time out), and his curveball was sharp, allowing him to throw it twice as much as he did against Chicago.

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“I think I commanded all my pitches,” Williams said. “Mixed in the changeup here and there. Other than that, working on the slider a little bit. The curveball was working good, too.”

“He was more efficient,” Vogt said about this start. “I think with the White Sox, they were fouling off a lot of pitches. He was leaving his fastball over the middle a little bit more versus [against] the White Sox. Tonight, he was on the edges and had his real slider tonight compared to the last time out.”

This is just the foundation for Williams this season. He knows he has a lot to build on, and the usage of his slider is at the top of the list.

“I mean, it was iffy here and there,” Williams said. “Threw some good ones, threw some bad ones. Changed the grip up a little bit. So, still working through that.”

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We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Getting more innings from starting pitchers this season is critical for the Guardians’ success. As much as this bullpen has been excellent (and remains the best in the Majors with the lowest ERA at 2.59), it’s hard to imagine that level of dominance would be sustainable if the workload remains this high. Entering Monday, the Guardians’ rotation had still thrown the fifth-fewest innings (453 1/3) of all 30 teams. Williams has a chance to help eat more innings.

“He’s a big part of this team. He established that last year,” Guardians catcher Bo Naylor said. “The bullpen has been working a lot for us this past season, so for him to pick up those innings like he did today, that’s huge.”

The first start might have been clunkier than Williams would’ve wanted. Plus, his rehab starts weren’t as efficient as expected. But Cleveland knows to treat these early outings like a Spring Training progression. Williams was shut down in the middle of March after an awkward throw with a weighted ball caused pain in his elbow. He never got to have a true Cactus League build-up.

“We know the person that he can be,” Naylor said. “The sky is really the limit for him, and he’s just kind of getting back there. This is his second start in 2024 up here. So the more that he gets comfortable, the more he gets his feet wet and the more starts he gets, the better he’ll be.”

Monday’s four-hit performance was a reminder that Williams can be an enormous boost for this rotation.

“It’s very encouraging,” Williams said. “I mean, I know what I can do. I know what’s possible. … It’s gonna go up from here.”