CLEVELAND — This is what everyone expected Cleveland pitching to look like this season.
That dominance started with McKenzie.
“He was impressive,” said Guardians manager Terry Francona. “That was really impressive. We saw in the first few games whether you give up [the Yankees] an inch, they’ll probably knock them out. And he was pitching really aggressively, staying out of the middle, turning the ball. That was fun to watch.”
As of Sunday’s start, McKenzie had given up 15 home runs in his previous eight starts. He’d said there wasn’t a trend on any of those outings that led to an answer as to why so many balls left the park against him. But since that was a habit he’d fallen into, having the biggest slugging team against him seemed like a recipe for disaster. Unless it was the exact opposite.
McKenzie held the Yankees on a hit — a Josh Donaldson single to the left in the fourth — with a walk and seven strikeouts in seven scintillating frames. So what was the difference between that trip to the rubber and his last few?
“I think the difference between that outing and the last few outings was that they were a little more uncomfortable at the plate and used all of my pitches on either side,” McKenzie said. “I used my curveball well to kind of slow them down and I think that helped throw the boys off balance and kind of kept my heater useful from the first inning to the last.”
McKenzie used nearly half the curveballs against the Yankees that he did last time against the Twins. But clearly, the more selective he was, the more effective he became. In his last two games combined, opponents hit .308 against his curveball. On Sunday, he delivered the only punch to his slider. And with this improvement in his curve, his fastball could play even better.
McKenzie struggled with command issues last season, which eventually led to a lack of confidence and led to a quick trip to Triple-A. But the difference this season is that McKenzie has matured quickly in his limited time in the big leagues and despite some of his results has been able to maintain a strong attitude that has allowed him to bounce back and remind everyone how lethal he is He recorded his 23rd career start with three hits or fewer (ranked second in the majors since his debut in 2020).
“Incredible,” said Guardians DH Franmil Reyes, who was in charge of the team’s two runs. “Triston this year was like the Triston you all know. He’s a very talented player – his style of play, his attitude, his focus – and today was a great performance.”
Getting as many innings as possible from their starters (especially now that their third doubleheader in six days is scheduled for Monday) is crucial for the Guardians to get the ball in Clase’s hands as quickly as possible. Even when the closer ran into unexpected trouble in the ninth with an error by Owen Miller at first base, putting the runners in first and second with no outs, he didn’t waver. He recorded back-to-back strikeouts before the Yankees put AL MVP candidate Aaron Judge on the plate.
“He’s a great hitter, but I feel like I’m a good pitcher too,” Clase said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero. “So that’s my mindset, and it’s just, ‘Let’s compete.’ … He ended up walking, but I was able to execute the pitches in our plan.”
Walking Judge loading bases into the top of the ninth in a hard-fought plate appearance was no problem for the Guardians. Clase was able to reset Aaron Hicks and force the game to end and end the game in the next at-bat. Clase made his 19th save of the season, lowering his ERA to 1.31 and demonstrating how dominant this pitching staff can be when the starter can call the shots.
“Last year we saw a couple of cases where things went a bit fast, as is the case with young players,” Francona said. “Now he’s got quite a few opportunities under his belt and he’s playing like a veteran despite being a young kid.”