CLEVELAND, Ohio — Dr. Sticks delivered just like Todd Isaacs dreamed he would.
Dr. Sticks is Triston McKenzie, the 6-5, 165-pound right-hander who struck out 10 Detroit Tigers in his big-league debut for the Indians on Saturday night at Progressive Field. That’s more strikeouts than any pitcher in Indians history has had in their debut with the exception of Luis Tiant, who struck out 11 in nine innings against the Yankees on July 19, 1964.
You want a perfect baseball nickname? Shoeless Joe. The Yankee Clipper. The Georgia Peach. Well, McKenzie has thrown exactly one game in the big leagues and Dr. Sticks is about as good as it gets. He has the longest legs in the big leagues and the wingspan of a Condor.
Isaacs, who was drafted by the Indians in 2015 along with McKenzie, gave it to him. Isaacs is now in the minor leagues with the Rockies.
On Thursday the Indians announced that McKenzie would be starting against the Tigers. Well before that, however, Isaacs sent McKenzie a direct message via Twitter saying he dreamed that he struck out 10 batters in his big-league debut. McKenzie responded by saying, “I’m trying to make that a reality.”
Saturday night he did. McKenzie, in his first start in an actual game since 2018, allowed one run in six innings as the Indians beat Detroit, 6-1. The Indians trailed 1-0 after McKenzie pitched the sixth, his final inning. But they made him a winner by scoring four runs in the bottom of the sixth.
“It didn’t go like this in my head,” McKenzie told reporters on a Zoom call after the game. “Not even close. I thought I’d have a solid outing and I didn’t lose. This was better than expected.”
As for the dream maker, McKenzie said, “I’m so glad somebody brought it up, because he needs to go play the lotto. . .Shout out to my friend, Todd Isaacs.”
The only run he allowed came off the bat of Willi Castro, another former minor league teammate. They played together in 2016, 2017 and 2018 in the Indians farm system. Castro was traded to the Tigers in 2018 for outfielder Leonys Martin.
In the fourth inning Saturday, Castro hit an 88 mph changeup 445 feet into the right field seats.
“Sore subject,” said McKenzie when asked about Castro. “Me and Willi are actually close. I talked to him before Friday’s game. I talked to him a little bit before today’s game. The fact that he was the one who hit the home run off me was, I guess, very ironic. But I got him back there in the end (strikeout to end the sixth inning). We’re gonna go back and forth about that, definitely.”
Did the fact that Castro had seen McKenzie pitch give him an advantage that the rest of the Tigers didn’t have?
“I wouldn’t say he had an advantage because of that,” said McKenzie. “Willi’s a good hitter. I made a mistake and he definitely capitalized on it. That ball was crushed.”
The Indians drafted McKenzie out of Royal Palm Beach High School in Florida. When McKenzie was seven or eight years old, Miguel Cabrera was breaking in with the Miami Marlins as a 20-year-old hitting phenom. He helped them win the World Series in 2003.
“He’s literally a living legend down there,” said McKenzie.
McKenzie struck out Cabrera twice in the first and fourth innings. Cabrera, the last Triple Crown winner, was overmatched.
“I’m still floating right now,” said McKenzie. “I’d probably say that it’s really going to hit me when I go home and go play MLB The Show or something and I face Miggy in the game.”
McKenzie threw 80 pitches, including 46 fastballs, 18 curves, nine changeups and seven sliders. His fastball averaged 94.5 mph, topping out at 96.5 mph, according to baseball savant.com.
Roberto Perez, the Indians’ Gold Glove catcher, had never caught McKenzie before catching him in the bullpen before the game. He asked McKenzie to rate his pitches, McKenzie named his fastball and curve as No.1 and No. 2.
“He was riding that fastball up there and, oh man, it was nice,” said Perez. “He was throwing it up in the zone and they were swinging at it like it was 100 mph.”
McKenzie shook Perez off a lot, something Indians pitchers usually don’t do. Perez let him because he didn’t want to clutter McKenzie’s mind. Let the kids play, right.
The Indians know how to develop starting pitchers. They do pitching like Apple does iPhones. Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer and two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber to name a few. They’ve been waiting for McKenzie to take his spot in line for almost two years, but they didn’t know if he could stay in one piece long enough. He missed the first half of the season in 2018 with a strained forearm. A strained right rotator cuff and and pectoral muscle cost him 2019.
He went to his first big-league camp in February, but he was wrapped in gauze. The Indians wouldn’t let him pitch for fear of another injury. After he got sent to the minors, he was scheduled to appear in games and then the pandemic hit. The closest he’s come to game action have been scrimmages at Classic Park in Eastlake. He faced good hitters, but there weren’t enough players to have a full 10-on-10 game without a coach playing second base or right field.
“Honestly, it didn’t really hit me until closer to game day that I hadn’t thrown in a live game against another team for a long time,” said McKenzie. “But I’d say my day-to-day process is mainly trying to stay locked in to what’s going to get me to my next outing. . .that’s what I’m going to do from here on out.”
Not only did it take McKenzie a long time to get to Saturday night, but when he did there was no one in the stands. No proud mom and dad, brothers and sisters, girlfriend, agents and former coaches. They had to watch on TV. Except third baseman Nolan Jones, who replaced McKenzie as the Indians top prospect this spring. Jones, who has been training at Classic Park with McKenzie, climbed the parking garage behind the left field bleachers to watch the debut.
“I think one, it shows the great character of the guys the Indians have in general,” said McKenzie. “Nolan’s a really good friend of mine and he didn’t have to do that, but he did and I’m going to try to be there for his, because I’m gonna feel bad if I’m not. He wasn’t even allowed in the stadium and he was watching.”
If and when that happens, there’s a good chance McKenzie and Jones will be big-league teammates.
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