The belated debut of right-hander Triston McKenzie made it a big day for the Cleveland Guardians. Just how big depends on how far McKenzie and the Guardians can take it the rest of the way in 2023.
Making his first start of the season Sunday after being sidelined about 10 weeks because of a strained shoulder muscle, McKenzie dominated the Minnesota Twins over five scoreless innings and recorded 10 strikeouts in Cleveland's 2-1 victory at Target Field.
"It says that I'm executing," McKenzie said. "My stuff is playing in the zone, and I'm able to go in and out of the zone when I need to."
McKenzie is a huge piece of the Guardians puzzle, having posted a 2.96 ERA with 190 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings in 2022, not including six shutout innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in Cleveland's AL wild-card series victory. A healthy McKenzie likely would underpin any kind of sustained success for the Guardians, who recently put right-hander Cal Quantrill on the injured list and have gotten mixed results from their starting pitchers so far this year.
"It's a crucial time of the season for us, moving into summer," McKenzie said. "I think it's about time we start to get up a little bit. I like it."
Cleveland scored twice in the seventh inning to break a scoreless tie, with Josh Naylor hitting an RBI double against Ryan and, after a pitching change, Andrés Giménez following with an RBI triple against left-hander Caleb Thielbar. The Twins rallied on a Willi Castro home run against Enyel De Los Santos in the eighth, and they put runners at first and third in the ninth against closer Emmanuel Clase before Castro struck out to end the game.
After dropping the first two games of the series, the Guardians (27-32) won the final two and moved within 3 1/2 games of first-place Minnesota in the American League Central. Cleveland starts a homestand Tuesday with a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox and finishes it with a weekend set against the champion Houston Astros.
Guardians manager Terry Francona said McKenzie delivered more than anyone expected in his first start of the season. Even though the 25-year-old has looked that good in his career before, Francona and pitching coach Carl Willis marveled at how well McKenzie performed, given that he hadn't pitched in a major-league game since October.
Pertaining to McKenzie's injury rehab, Francona said: "He works so hard and was diligent about everything. But then you get into a major-league game and it's different. To see him come out and use all his pitches, and have his fastball have some life to it, that flew past 'encouraging.'"
McKenzie himself did not seem surprised to have so many pitches working well in his first start, saying it's just what he had been working on at Triple A during three rehab starts. The only frustrating part for him was not being able to help his teammates while he worked on getting healthy.
"It's hard to not be anxious to get out there," McKenzie said.
It was a bittersweet day for the Cleveland pitching corps. The team designated right-hander Zach Plesac for assignment after he posted a 7.59 ERA in five starts and didn’t bounce back in a stint at Triple A.
The 28-year-old struggled at times over the past three seasons while attempting to rekindle his success of 2019 and 2020. The Guardians have too much pitching depth, along with too little roster space, and not enough time to wait any longer on Plesac. A trade sometime in the next seven days would seem to be the next option.