CLEVELAND — Triston McKenzie has had a strong start to his MLB career, but the growth he's made hasn't come without a lot of dedication on his part, and a little help from teammate Shane Bieber.
McKenzie and Bieber have known each other for years and Bieber, the Guardians ace, is lending some tips to the Guardians' rising high-caliber starter.
"I think what the bond that I have with him as a teammate and how I view him, I'm always going to call my ace, especially when I see him go out there and compete," McKenzie said. "If I could be half as good of the pitcher as he is when we're out there competing, I think I think we're in a good spot as a team."
While McKenzie raved about Bieber, similar sentiments were echoed by Bieber as he talked about McKenzie.
"I've been fortunate enough to watch him for a lot longer than two or three years, I think over the past four, five six that I've known him he's become a great friend, an awesome colleague, an awesome guy to bounce ideas off of and just enjoy our time and our privilege of playing in the big leagues," Bieber said.
From sharing ideas with each other to McKenzie observing the way Bieber operates from the mound, the two are shaping each other constantly.
"I think me and him are constantly bouncing stuff back and forth off each other. When it comes to just how we attack hitters when he's out there pitching, I'm definitely paying close attention to how he's going about getting guys out and just how he goes about his business," McKenzie said. "I think from a whole from a whole standpoint, when it goes to him doing his running, doing his bullpen work, doing his side work as well as when he's out there competing, I try to take little parts of his game and add it to mine and I think vice versa he'll see how I compete and he does the same."
McKenzie has had another strong start this season, posting a 2.96 ERA with 61 strikeouts in his 12 games with 11 starts. He attributes his success not only to what he's been learning from teammates but from what he's been working on individually as well.
"I think a lot of this year has been kind of just a culmination of what I learned last year and the previous year and just trying to use it to be a little bit more comfortable and just be a little bit more me out there," McKenzie said. "I think a lot of baseball is repetition and being able to go out there and do your job and being able to do it again in a couple of days as a starting pitcher. And I think I just kind of figured out my rhythm and kind of my routine as to what helps me feel good and what allows me to go out there and perform."
Getting more comfortable is something that practice and tips can help, but really just comes with time. Pitching in his third season, McKenzie is starting to get that time under his belt, and the effects can be seen on the mound. He's found his stuff and is at the point where he's figured out what works. He doesn't want to tweak too much, but rather learn to use the pitches he has in his arsenal to best attack the batters at the plate in any given game.
"I think as time passes, I get a little bit more comfortable day in and day out. I think just being around guys I'm comfortable with, being around my teammates and the feeling like it's a game of baseball as opposed to feeling like I have to go out there and prove myself to my teammates as well as my coaches, just allows me a little bit of extra comfortability and allows me to go out and be myself," McKenzie said.
Part of being himself includes the things he's doing off the field—like a promotion with Miller Lite to showcase his connection with Northeast Ohio. As part of a new campaign, Miller Lite is taking dirt from Progressive Field and sprinkling it across the barley fields it harvests for its beer.
"I think being able to be involved in stuff like this...I definitely think it gives me more of an avenue to connect with [fans]. I think a lot of the times we get a little bit disconnected when we're on the field," McKenzie said. "I think them seeing me as a part of who they are when they come to the field when it comes to how they drink their Miller Lite and how they interact with the team and just the energy and the passion they show for their city, for their beer. I think it's great to be a part of."
His promotion with Miller Lite is just one way McKenzie is connecting with fans. He's also found himself relating to them on social media when the weather gets a little bleak and their games get delayed or canceled—which has happened shockingly often this season.
The Guardians have had eight games postponed due to inclement weather, and fans aren't the only ones upset by the bad luck.
"I always look at social media when we get rained out just because I enjoy seeing what the fans have to say and I love hearing their voice," McKenzie said. "I'd like to let them know that as much as they're frustrated with the rainouts, the team is as well, and especially me because I think it just throws a wrench in our programs and we love to be out there playing."
With summer officially here, McKenzie hopes that spring showers have wrapped up and weather can be an afterthought—especially now as the team is red hot. Sitting at the top of the American League Central standings, tied with the Minnesota Twins, the Guardians have been on a roll.
McKenzie is enjoying the hot streak and is hopeful that it continues as the season goes on, but no matter what is using this season's successes as he and his teammates continue to grow.
"I think it's huge from an experience standpoint. For me, for guys that have kind of been around the block, like a José or a Bryan Shaw or even a Shane Bieber, where they've been with the team for a couple of years and they've been through some of the highs as well as being with a new team like this where we have Oscar [Gonzalez] coming up fresh and Steven [Kwan] coming up at the beginning of the season and guys are kind of new to everything," McKenzie said. "I think the fact that we're able to kind of all gel and all figure out a way to go out there and win baseball games has been huge. I think from an experience standpoint, that's going to be a big learning year for a lot of guys."
"I think the guys that you mentioned, Shane and José will, we'll give a lot of experience and a lot of leadership to some of those younger guys, we have a young team. So I think hopefully towards the end of the year we're in a good spot in our division and we'll see where we're at from there," he said.
And McKenzie is excited to show his growth on the mound to fans as the season continues and even into his fourth year in the Majors.
"I'd like to one, thank [fans] for their support and for watching and paying attention to me and supporting me and two, let them know that I'm going to be working hard and hopefully the pitcher that they see now is nothing like the pitcher they see next year because that guy's going to be way more successful," he said.
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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