Kikuchi's 5-K outing opens battle for No. 5 starter's spot

February 25th, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Fear the beard.

The new-look Yusei Kikuchi -- in more ways than one -- was the surprise star of the Blue Jays’ Grapefruit League opener Saturday against the Pirates, further entrenching himself as the favorite in a competition for the No. 5 starter’s job that might not be much of a competition at all.

If Spring Training results are to be taken with a grain of salt, then February results are to be taken with the whole bag, but Kikuchi is someone who needs numbers. He worked two scoreless innings, allowing just a single on an infield dribbler while striking out five batters in Toronto’s 9-7 win over the Pirates. As far as a first step, it couldn’t possibly have gone better.

For a Kevin Gausman or an Alek Manoah, spring numbers don’t matter much. The next month is about building up and staying healthy, and if they’re looking at a 9.00 ERA in Grapefruit League, nothing changes. They’re pitching Games 1 and 2 of the season regardless. Kikuchi is fighting for a job, though, and coming off a 5.19 ERA in his first year with the Blue Jays, he’s pitching for pride.

“Every game is going to be a competition for me,” Kikuchi said. "I’ve got to live up to expectations. That’s the main focus this spring.”

Hitters aren’t anywhere close to sharp at this point in Spring Training, but the swings and misses Kikuchi was able to create were most encouraging. On 33 pitches and 19 swings, Kikuchi produced 14 whiffs, with a new breaking ball that he’s labeling a curveball looking particularly sharp. Again, this is February, where each player you see is in the best shape of their lives and tinkering with an exciting new pitch, but that can’t discount how sharp Kikuchi looked.

The new pitch timer could be Kikuchi’s friend, too. Prior to the game, manager John Schneider suggested that the rhythm of the pitch timer might benefit the lefty by removing any dead time. Even when Kikuchi’s struggles reached their worst points last season, it was always a question of consistency, not his talent. The rhythm the pitch timer creates, though, can help to get Kikuchi’s mind out of the way.

“Time is obviously limited, so it just helps me with the tempo,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “I don’t have to overthink too much about mechanics and everything else. I think it just simplifies everything and makes it easier.”

The Blue Jays need this, especially if he’s the No. 5 guy. Coming off a heartbreaking end to the 2022 season, Toronto has retooled and should compete for the AL East crown in ‘23. To do so, they need someone to be reliable every fifth day.

“It’s just being familiar with teammates, being familiar with his surroundings a little bit more and trusting the work he did in the offseason,” Schneider said. “He’s been pretty convicted in what he’s doing. We were anxious to see what he’d do in live-game action, but everything was great coming up to this. He’s in a really good spot.”

You can sense how eager Kikuchi is to bounce back, too. As he struggled in 2022 and eventually fell out of the rotation, Kikuchi cared deeply about letting his teammates down. At times, that may have gotten the best of him. Kikuchi is used to success, though, most of which took place in Japan with the Seibu Lions and earned him a big deal with the Mariners when he came to MLB. Now in year two of a three-year, $36 million deal with Toronto, Kikuchi’s teammates are backing him, too.

“Like I always say about Kikuchi, he’s one of those pitchers that goes out there and gives you 100% every time,” said Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who opened the scoring with a projected 432-foot blast, through a club interpreter. “Since the start of Spring Training, I’ve seen him get even better. You guys saw that today.”

Between Kikuchi’s contract, Mitch White’s delayed start to camp following a January shoulder impingement and the limited MLB-ready depth beyond that group, the inside track here is clear. White will bring value to the Blue Jays, whether that’s as a starter out of the gates or as a swingman -- which will be key as starters continue building up through April -- but Kikuchi has positioned himself well in this battle.

It’s early, but when “early” is all you have to work with, Kikuchi has taken one fine first step on the long road back.