Triston McKenzie eased right back into the rotation, hopeful that he can be part of an early summer spark for the lagging Cleveland Guardians.
McKenzie tossed five scoreless innings in his injury-delayed season debut, and Josh Naylor delivered a breakthrough RBI double in the seventh to give the Guardians a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday afternoon that split the four-game series.
“I think it’s about time we start to get up a little bit,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie had 10 strikeouts and only one baserunner, a two-out single by Michael Taylor in the third. The 25-year-old right-hander threw 79 pitches after missing more than two months with a muscle strain in his shoulder that popped up at the end of spring training.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
“That flew past encouraging,” said manager Terry Francona, whose defending AL Central champion Guardians (27-32) have had a losing record since April 29 and trail the Twins (31-29) by 3 1/2 games.
Twins starter Joe Ryan (7-3) was just as sharp as McKenzie until José Ramírez drew a two-out, full-count walk in the seventh. Naylor followed with a drive off the limestone facade that juts out over the right-field wall, putting the Guardians, who are last in the major leagues in home runs, on the board.
Andrés Giménez then greeted Caleb Thielbar with an RBI triple that gave them a two-run lead.
Willi Castro led off the eighth with a homer for the Twins against Enyel De Los Santos. Taylor, who went 3 for 3 with two stolen bases, hit a two-out double.
The inning ended on a groundout by Royce Lewis, who gave the Twins a scare with a somersault over first baseman Gabriel Arias as they collided at the base. After an examination by the Twins and a slow climb to his feet, Lewis walked off on his own power.
McKenzie’s return further strengthened a solid Guardians staff fronted by Shane Bieber and boosted earlier in the series by the return of Aaron Civale from injury. The Guardians felt good enough about their depth to cut Zach Plesac, who has been struggling in Triple-A for a month, prior to the game.
“I was really just excited to be out there with the boys,” McKenzie said.
It was his seventh career double-digit strikeout performance.
“I hadn’t really seen a slider like his before. It was pretty good. He has that curveball. He didn’t miss many spots today," Twins shortstop Kyle Farmer said. “That’s the best I’ve seen him in a while.”
The Twins, who lead the major league in strikeouts, whiffed 16 times to match their season high. Three of their best hitters, Byron Buxton (ribs), Carlos Correa (foot) and Alex Kirilloff (illness), were on the bench.
“We didn’t have enough good at-bats. You’re not going to win striking out that many times and struggling when you do get a guy on base and you can’t bring him in,” manager Rocco Baldelli said.
Close and Clase
James Karinchak (2-4) was credited with the victory after a scoreless sixth. Trevor Stephan, who surrendered a tying two-run homer to Lewis in the eighth inning of a loss in the series opener on Thursday, pitched a perfect seventh.
Emmanuel Clase posted his MLB-best 19th save with a scoreless ninth inning. He has 14 career saves against the Twins, his most against any opponent. Clase issued a two-out walk to Ryan Jeffers and surrendered a single to Farmer before striking out Castro to end the game.
Clase has appeared in 30 of 59 games for the Guardians, who are 20-20 in an MLB-high 40 games decided by two runs or fewer.
“He knows how to warm up. He doesn’t overdo it, and he’s really honest with us about how he feels, which is important,” Francona said.
Guardians: SS Amed Rosario was on the bench with left knee soreness after being pulled in the fourth inning the day before.
Twins: Thielbar was reinstated from the injured list after missing 29 games with a strained right oblique muscle. RHP Cole Sands went on the injured list with a right shoulder impingement.
Guardians: Bieber (4-3, 3.72 ERA) takes the mound on Tuesday night to begin a three-game series at home against Boston.
Twins: RHP Louie Varland (3-1, 3.51 ERA) starts a three-game series at Tampa Bay on Tuesday night.