CLEVELAND, Ohio — If that was a spot start, well, it’s a spot start that should leave a lasting impression with the people who make the decisions with the Indians.
Triston McKenzie, in his big-league debut Saturday night, struck out 10 in six high-velocity innings against the Tigers at Progressive Field. He made two mistakes, one of which he had no control over, but everything turned out fine.
McKenzie allowed a first-pitch homer to his former minor league teammate Willie Castro and he debuted on a night where the Indians feast or famine offense was on a hunger strike. At least that’s what it looked like until the sixth inning when the Indians scored four runs on the way to a 6-1 win over the Tigers.
The runs came just in time to make McKenzie (1-0, 1.50) a winner because he wasn’t coming out for the seventh inning after throwing 80 pitches. McKenzie’s 10 strikeouts are the second most in franchise history by a pitcher making his debut. Luis Tiant holds the record with 11 strikeouts in nine innings against the Yankees on July 19, 1964.
“Wow, that was impressive, man,” said acting manager Sandy Alomar. “He was very impressive. I was talking to Roberto Perez (catcher) during and after the game. He said McKenzie can pitch backward even though he has a good fastball because they were really attacking him early with the fastball.
“He understood the situation, pitching back and forth, that way it takes them off the fastball.”
When asked what’s next for McKenzie, a trip back to Classic Park or another big-league start, Alomar said, “They are still working through that. Carl (Willis, pitching coach) Is talking to Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff. But with that performance, I don’t see why he wouldn’t get another opportunity. But that’s a decision the organization has to make.”
McKenzie’s debut was a long time in the making. The 6-5, 165-pound right-hander hasn’t pitched in a game where they’ve kept score for keeps since the second half of the 2018 Class AA Akron season. He missed all of the 2019 season with a strained right rotator cuff and pectoral muscle. He’s been pitching in intrasquad games at the Indians second workout site in Eastlake since Spring Training II started on July 3.
He was the Indians second overall pick in 2015.
“I was reaching out to everybody and anybody who could help calm me down,” said McKenzie. “This was my first game in a really, really long time. I think it helped keep me stay grounded that a lot of the people I wanted to watch this game and pitch for helped relax me and bring me back to center. That was mainly my family and girlfriend.
“Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale talked to me. They gave me rundown on and said everybody has been through it. Just go out there and be you.”
Nolan Jones, the Indians top prospect, was one of McKenzie’s friends who watched Saturday’s game. But he didn’t watch it on TV, he watched it from the roof of the parking lot behind the left field bleachers. He’s been training at Classic Park with McKenzie this summer.
Castro gave the Tigers a 1-0 lead with a first-pitch homer in the fourth. He hit an 88 mph changeup 445-feet, so he didn’t miss it. Unlike the Tigers other hitters, Castro had an idea what McKenzie threw.
They played together in the Indians minor league system in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The Indians traded Castro to the Tigers for Leonys Martin during the 2018 season.
McKenzie started the inning by retiring Victor Reyes on a 94 mph fastball that he lined to center. Castro hammered McKenzie’s changeup, but he didn’t blink. He struck out Miguel Cabrera on four pitches, three of them fastballs between 95 mph and 96 mph. The inning ended when Jonathan Schoop, who had four hits Friday night, lined out to center on a 95 mph fastball.
Matthew Boyd (0-4, 8.48) held the Indians scoreless through the first five innings. Boyd entered the game with a 1-3 record at Progressive Field and an ERA over 9.00 so it looked like the the offense was in for another study in frustration, but they made something happen in the sixth.
Jose Ramirez opened with a leadoff walk. Francisco Lindor singled to right for his third hit of the game. After Carlos Santana lined out to right field, John Schreiber relieved Boyd. He struck out Franmil Reyes, but Jordan Luplow, still trying to get his batting average above .100, drew a six-pitch walk to load the bases. Domingo Santana, down in the count 0-2, worked it back to even before sending a three-run double into the gap in left center.
Roberto Perez followed with a single to make it 4-1. Carlos Santana added a sacrifice fly in the seventh and Cesar Hernandez and RBI single in the eighth to complete the scoring.
“I’m just glad we were able to score some runs to give him the chance to get the win,” said Alomar.
Pitching coaches Carl Willis and Ruben Niebla said McKenzie would lean heavily on his four-seam fastball and curveball. He did not disappoint. He threw 46 fastballs at an average of 94.5 mph. He followed with 18 curves, nine changeups and seven sliders, according to baseball savant.com.
The Indians have won seven of their last eight games. They improved to 21-1 against the Tigers over the last two seasons.
Center fielder Delino DeShields left the game in the fifth inning with a sore left hip.
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