In his first start since returning from the All-Star Futures Game, Triston McKenzie put his skillset on full display.
The Indians' No. 2 prospect carried a no-hitter into the seventh and struck out nine over seven innings as Class A Advanced Lynchburg beat Wilmington, 7-4, on Saturday at Frawley Stadium.
The Futures Game capped a stellar first half for McKenzie (8-4), who is tied with D-backs prospect Ryan Atkinson for the Minor League lead with 124 strikeouts. But his pitching coach, Rigo Beltran, wanted to check in afterwards and make sure he stayed grounded.
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"We had a conversation with him a few days ago about not dropping his guard," Beltran said."Now that he's been to the Futures Game and now that we're in the second half, this is when players can start to take a deep breath and have a tendency to go through the motions a little bit. But Triston's really conscious of that and understands what he needs to do. He keeps amazing me with how mature and goal-oriented he is."
McKenzie (7-4) worked around two-out walks in each of the first two frames before finding his groove with an eight-pitch third inning.
"You could see he had his good stuff working out of the bullpen," Beltran said. "One thing that worked in his favor is that the Futures Game was on his fifth day and he only ended up throwing two pitches. Then we pushed him back another five days to allow him to get stronger and take a deep breath."
"I did feel good early on and I was locked in before the game," McKenzie said. "My curveball didn't quite feel right in the beginning, but I figured once I got into the game that it would come, and I started to have a good feel for it later in the first inning."
The 19-year-old put together three more perfect frames to take the no-hitter to the seventh.
"It definitely wasn't on my mind," McKenzie said. "I just went out there and focused on competing, so I could give my team the best chance to win. I don't notice that stuff until it's over or someone tells me."
"He has a quiet confidence in him," Beltran added. "He's a very smart guy and knows what he wants to do on the mound. He's shown a lot of growth since he's been here. We're really focused on routines and developing pitches with him."
The no-hit bid was thwarted when Brandon Downes reached on an infield single on the first pitch of the seventh. On the next offering, Chris DeVito doubled to right field to put runners on second and third with nobody out. After McKenzie retired Wander Franco on one pitch, the Blue Rocks finally got to the right-hander on Roman Collins' two-run double. The extra-base hit drew Beltran out of the dugout.
"I went out there to talk to him and give him a little breather. I wanted to make sure we were on the same page and that we focused on making two-strike pitches," Beltran said. "He's a good kid, he's open to everything we say. He didn't look fatigued, which was good to see. He's always open to it and understands what to do. And the best thing about it is that he's able to apply the game plan immediately."
McKenzie responded by striking out Colton Frabasilio and getting Jose Sanchez to ground to first to end the inning.
"I knew the no-hitter was over at that point and there was nothing I could do about it anymore," the 2015 first-round pick said. "I had no choice but to focus on getting those last two outs, and that's what I did."
McKenzie has a 2.89 ERA and 1.12 WHIP over 96 2/3 innings in 17 starts. He's held opponents to a .209 batting average and has struck out 33 percent of the batters he's faced.
Billy Strode gave up a run in the eighth and Leandro Linares yielded an unearned run in the ninth for the Hillcats.
McKenzie's batterymate, Martin Cervenka, finished a homer short of the cycle, while Sicnarf Loopstok and Gavin Collins both contributed two hits and an RBI.