TORONTO -- There was a joy to Yusei Kikuchi’s performance on Saturday, twirling into a pitcher’s pirouette and pumping his fist after strikeouts.
There were nine of those, spread over six of the best innings Kikuchi has thrown for the Blue Jays. Through a long 2022 season, the left-hander’s talent teased an ability to do something far greater, which is partly why his struggles were so frustrating. It’s a start like Saturday’s 5-2 win that Kikuchi was teasing.
Facing a bulldozing Rays lineup that crossed the border with a 13-0 record, but slipped to 0-2 in the land of the loonie, Kikuchi shifted into attack mode and stayed there. Many of the starter’s headaches came early in games in 2022, forcing him to chase adjustments and scramble through games as the opponent wrote the script. But this is what Kikuchi looks like when he’s the one driving the story, and the Blue Jays need to see far more of it.
“I love it,” said manager John Schneider. “He’s got a different way about him this year than he has in the past. With the work he put in and the spring he had, it’s just carried over a bit. He’s confident. A confident pitcher is a dangerous thing. That’s what he is right now.”
Kikuchi’s teammates see that same dangerous man in there.
If he had curled into his shell and let 2022 slow his work ethic, his own personal frustrations would have spread through the team. That’s not how it happened, though. Much like José Berríos, Kikuchi was his own biggest critic. That kept his teammates behind him, and now they’re all reaping the benefits.
“He’s got great stuff and he’s a competitor,” said Danny Jansen, who also sees a more confident Kikuchi. “Last year, nobody held themselves to a higher standard than himself. You can tell he worked his butt off all offseason and in spring, now early in the season he’s been electric.”
One of Kikuchi’s bright spots last summer -- and there were a handful of them through the lows -- came against this same Rays team on June 30. That day, Kikuchi threw six innings of one-run ball with eight strikeouts and four hits allowed. The only run came on a solo shot. It’s a nearly identical line to what he did Saturday, almost eerily so.
In Kikuchi’s following outing, against a lesser A’s lineup, he couldn’t escape the third inning after walking five and failing to strike out a batter. This is why it’s important to take the optimism from Kikuchi’s great outing on Saturday, but also keep an eye down the road. Kikuchi has again shown what he’s capable of -- and lefty starters who touch 97 mph aren’t the most common commodity -- but he’ll now be challenged with sustaining this production.
That’s important because Kikuchi’s confidence is about more than just feeling good. There’s a real, tangible impact on his pitching, and it allows him to re-engage with his mental game.
“I’m able to play the mind games again this year with the batters,” Kikuchi said through club interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “Last year, I started to think a little bit too much on the mound. This year, I’m enjoying the mind games that I have with the batters at the plate.”
Not every outing will be this crisp, but if Kikuchi can consistently give the Blue Jays a chance to win, it’s another step in the right direction for a rotation that’s had some early stumbles.
Alek Manoah hasn’t quite been himself yet, and we’re just now seeing the full version of Chris Bassitt. Berríos is coming off a fine outing of his own, but like Kikuchi, he needs to do it again. Kevin Gausman has been the lone steady hand, as he always is, but that’s slowly changing as others begin to step up.
“That’s just baseball. Whether you’re getting going or finding a routine, it’s just baseball,” Jansen said. “These guys are feeding off each other, and that’s the beautiful part about baseball.”
Kikuchi has unexpectedly become the feel-good story of the group, earning plenty of support from a fan base eager to witness a comeback narrative after grinding through so many of his 2022 starts from the couch or a bleacher seat. The subtle but noticeable flair with which he’s pitching will only add to that allure.
Nobody would love it more than the Blue Jays. Their roster is stacked with talent, but even great teams need a pleasant surprise.