Like most Major League Baseball players, Triston McKenzie experienced last season as a blur. Every team, every pitcher had to navigate through COVID-19 protocols and pauses, condensed schedules and shorter rest periods.
But for McKenzie, it went deeper. The right-hander from Royal Palm Beach dealt with struggles on the mound and lost his spot in the Cleveland Indians starting rotation, all while adapting to an interim manager because the club’s full-time manager was on medical leave.
However, the 6-foot-5, 165-pound pitcher turned the corner as the season wound down. He impressed Cleveland’s management, and now, with the MLB Lockout long over, spring training in full swing, and opening day not far away, he is in prime position for a bounce-back season.
“The way in which he attacked the zone really improved over the course of the second half of the season. The way he’s utilized his pitches, sequencing, all that has improved,” Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said of McKenzie’s arsenal. “But overall, I would say, just his mindset and aggressiveness probably stand out the most.”
McKenzie’s totals from last season don’t jump off the page, but Cleveland is content to take the long approach with the 24-year-old. He finished 5-9 with 136 strikeouts for a team that did not qualify for the postseason. He allowed 21 home runs in 120 innings.
But Cleveland’s rotation is deeper now and healthier as well. And those around the organization believe McKenzie will play a significant role. The team changed its name from the Indians to the Guardians this past November 19 after complaints from native American groups. It has the longest World Series championship drought of any Major League team: 74 years.
“We have a high standard and guys continue to push it higher and higher and that’s always a good thing within a clubhouse within an organization,” Shane Bieber, Cleveland’s No. 1 starter, said of the pitching rotation. “It’s crazy to think that we have a lot of those arms and a lot of those names, but we haven’t all thrown together just yet. So, we’re excited for the opportunity this year.”
McKenzie is, as well. Even though he’s not often close to home once the season kicks in, the self-proclaimed “Florida Kid,” who trains in Arizona and pitches in Ohio, is well aware of what is in front of him.
“It was a big learning curve in that aspect. I still think it’s part of becoming an adult, a part of becoming just a professional in whatever you choose to do. I think I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said McKenzie, who bypassed a college career to head into the 2015 MLB Draft. “I think college would have given me a little buffer, but I think being thrown into the fire definitely allowed me to find real love for the game and find out what you’re willing to do to succeed.”
The roots of his skill-set trace back to Royal Palm Beach, although McKenzie was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and resided there until he was about four years old. His family then moved to Florida, and although baseball wasn’t on his radar just yet, little did he know he was moving to one of the sport’s best proving grounds.
“I don’t really remember too much of New York, but I have family up there,” he said. “I still have strong ties up there… at heart, I’m a Florida kid.”
McKenzie started playing baseball in Palm Beach County. His mother was not keen on the idea of football, and basketball was just okay. But from a young age, he knew he loved baseball.
“Just being around the park playing, even when I wasn’t playing, my little brother would play there,” he said.
Indeed, the McKenzies would go to the field with friends and soak up the ambiance. He felt it then, much like he does now. The diamond is the place where he found his love for the game.
McKenzie’s summer-league coach had him think critically about his life at a young age. He remembers that fondly: “I think you can develop into a really great player; what’s the next step for you,” he would often ask McKenzie.
The Guardians are glad he chose the route he did, and now, with manager Terry Francona back in charge, a starting rotation featuring Bieber, McKenzie, Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac and Cal Quantrill – the sky could be the limit in Cleveland.
“I think the question is, what’s the floor?” McKenzie asked. “With Bieber, Civale, Plesac and Cal, it’s awesome to be following their lead and getting better.”
In a few Spring Training press conferences, Francona has said that he wants McKenzie to get a lot of work in before Opening Day. That means in exhibition games, for sure, but also bullpen sessions as he gets more comfortable with a spot in the starting rotation.
“I feel excited,” McKenzie said. “Happy to be back around baseball. My arm feels really good and healthy. That’s all I could ask for. I built up pretty regularly. Excited to get going.”
Indeed, he’s come a long way from that summer day in 2015, during his senior year at Royal Palm Beach High School, when he was selected No. 42 overall in the MLB Draft. He treated the day pretty normal, he woke up, went to the gym and then gathered with his coach’s family, waiting to hear his name.
He stuck around for a few picks, but — not hearing his name — he drifted off into his room to play “Call of Duty.” “I can’t help myself,” he said. “I’ve always been a video gamer.”
Eventually, though, he received the phone call that changed his life.
“My name didn’t get called, I was actually on the phone at the time because the scout who drafted me with the Indians called me to congratulate me on being chosen,” he said. “I left the room to answer the call, and talk to him, and while I was on the phone with him, my name got called!
“So, in the living room, I heard my mom going crazy. I heard my dad going crazy. It was an experience, a memory I’ll never forget.”
And now, like all of the Guardians, who open the regular season April 7, he has a chance to make even more memories this season. But he admitted that, along the way, he’s having some trouble getting used to the name change.
“I stick with saying Cleveland,” he said. “It’s easier to say.”