One of the highlights of a weird season of baseball in a weird year of 2020 was seeing Triston McKenzie finally make his major league debut on August 22nd, striking out 10 against the Tigers, with friend and rising prospect Nolan Jones peeking over a parking garage bridge to cheer him on. Now, almost a year later, McKenzie has, again, brought a welcome, positive distraction in the middle of dark times by throwing a perfect game through 7.2 innings and a shutout through 8, striking out 11, again against frequent Indians' punching-bag, the Detroit Tigers. This has been a difficult year professionally at times for Triston as he struggled with an abnormally high walk-rate and one start in particular that looked dangerously like he had some kind of mental block in trying to throw strikes. But, to his credit, he handled bouncing back down to Triple-A and then getting called up after Bieber and Civale went down with amazing poise. And, since the calendar hit July, he continues to give the team a chance to win every time he steps on the mound.
His tweet late Sunday night said it all – "I was on Sports-Center." Yes, Triston, you were. The first of many times you will be, I’m convinced. I’m sure McKenzie has heard the whispers that he is too scrawny to stay healthy, too thin to compete, but he has also seen great hitter after great hitter walk away from the plate after striking out against him shaking their heads at a curveball or a slider that darted out of the zone at the last minute. For McKenzie, as for many pitchers, the key is commanding his fastball, especially early in the count, so hitters cannot sit on it late in the count, but instead have to defend against his devastating curveball and effective slider. On Sunday, August 15th, everything was working and McKenzie reminded Cleveland fans why there is reason to hope against hope that the team can compete with the White Sox in 2022; just like it has been for the past 6 years, it’s the starting pitching that is a separator for the Cleveland baseball franchise. And, for me, no starting pitcher is more enjoyable to watch when his stuff is working than McKenzie is. His unique frame, his relaxed demeanor and his gritty competitiveness delight my every baseball sense.
I feel badly for folks who are writing off the team because of a name change when a fun, young player like McKenzie is going to be making hitters look silly for us for several years to come, all while Nolan Jones continues to look hopefully over that wall separating him from a promotion, hoping to get his chance to show how much fun he also can add to the Guardians roster in 2022. McKenzie’s story in 2022 is one that should be an inspiration for us as we find ourselves stuck back in pandemic times, and as we struggle with how best to help those struggling throughout the world. McKenzie didn’t let setbacks and failures define him. He went back to his belief in his stuff and his willingness to learn and grow so that he could once again find solutions and success. I hope we can do the same as a country and a world; stop arguing and fighting, whining, and feeling sorry for ourselves, stop buying into defeatist mindsets, and, instead, do what it takes to defeat the forces that oppose health, peace, and prosperity as a society. Maybe we can look to examples in sports like the one set by the indomitable McKenzie to help us out. I can’t wait to see Dr. Sticks in a Guardians uniform in 2022, tormenting Tigers, torturing Twins, razing Royals, and whiffing White Sox. My toddler son has a Bieber Indians jersey which my wife astutely found at a garage sale; I think a McKenzie Guardians jersey will be his next acquisition, what a great model of hard work and endurance to which he can aspire, as can we all.