Kikuchi (9 strikeouts) full-speed ahead as season looms

March 23rd, 2023

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Yusei Kikuchi entered Spring Training singularly focused on rejoining the Blue Jays’ rotation, and he has done such a good job that, barring injury, the fifth-starter gig is his. While that doesn’t mean Kikuchi is easing off the gas, it’s safe to say he had at least one eye on an important event happening outside of camp.

Down the road a ways … say, Miami. A little thing called the World Baseball Classic.

"It was impressive," Kikuchi said on Thursday, beaming as he discussed Team Japan’s third Classic championship and its first since 2009. "I'm very happy."

As Kikuchi was in camp fine-tuning his repertoire during a spring that’s seen him hold opposing hitters to a .148 average, his countrymen were cruising through pool play, then the knockout rounds, undefeated. Tuesday’s championship game fell on an off-day, which Kikuchi understandably used to spend time with his family and friends. But he definitely made sure to catch all the highlights of the win -- during which Japan took a 2-1 lead in the second inning and didn't trail again.

Kikuchi said Shohei Ohtani striking out his Angels teammate Mike Trout for the final out of the game was "pretty awesome."

"Everybody told me congratulations [in the clubhouse the next day]," Kikuchi added.

While Wednesday was reserved for riding high on the good vibes from Team Japan’s victory and welcoming congratulations around the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, Kikuchi was back to business on Thursday, fanning a spring-best nine hitters and lowering his ERA to 1.00 during Toronto’s 3-0 win against the Twins at Hammond Stadium.

Across six starts and 18 innings this spring, the left-hander has allowed just two runs, both of which came during his previous start, on Friday against the Phillies.

"When he's on, he's really good. And I think that we've seen him be consistent in his zone the whole spring," manager John Schneider said. "... I think confidence in him is high right now."

Kikuchi faced a challenge right out of the gate with Minnesota’s first two batters -- Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa -- entering play with career .333 and .500 averages, respectively, against him.

After Buxton whiffed on an 87 mph slider for strike three to open the game, Correa reached on a dribbler that died a few feet up the third-base line, which Kikuchi just couldn’t corral in time. Toronto’s starter responded by fanning Christian Vázquez on five pitches and Kyle Garlick on seven pitches to wrap the frame with no damage.

Kikuchi faced the minimum in the second inning, with his stinginess allowing Toronto to take a 2-0 lead on consecutive run-scoring singles in the third -- from and Blue Jays No. 4 prospect , kick-starting the shutout victory.

Kikuchi rebounded from a one-out triple by Elliot Soto in the third to get Buxton on a groundout to first and Correa looking at strike three, then he hit Nick Gordon with a pitch during an otherwise flawless fourth, and he completed his day with a pair of strikeouts in the fifth, the latter of which was against Buxton, who whiffed on a 95 mph four-seamer.

Buxton and Correa finished a combined 1-for-6 against him on the day.

There’s optimism that Kikuchi can take this year’s Grapefruit League performance and run with it the regular season, after his well-documented struggles in 2022. In his first year with Toronto, the left-hander made just 20 starts before moving to the bullpen in mid-August.

Kikuchi’s a guy who’s used to success: The 31-year-old had a career 2.77 ERA in 158 games (108 starts) over eight seasons with the Seibu Lions in Japan before landing a sizeable deal with the Mariners in December 2018. That, of course, led to the Blue Jays inking Kikuchi to three years and $36 million in March 2022.

He wasn't proud of the way his 2022 went, so his winter months were spent tinkering and toiling.

So far, it seems to be paying off.

"I think his offseason, the work that he put in kind of revamping his arm swing, getting him in the zone a little bit more was key," Schneider said. "His outings have been great."