Kikuchi honored to be named to ASG squad

July 5th, 2021

SEATTLE -- It took two years, a few growing pains on and off the field, and an adapting to pitching in the Majors, but has finally blossomed into the pitcher that the Mariners believed he would.

Now, the rest of the league has taken notice.

The 30-year-old Japanese left-hander was named an American League All-Star for the first time in his career on Sunday as the Mariners’ lone representative for the July 13 Midsummer Classic at Coors Field in Denver.

“First off, extremely happy,” Kikuchi said Sunday through an interpreter. “I’m very happy to hear this news. And more importantly, I just feel really thankful for my teammates, coaches, just everyone being there for me, and my family just always supporting me through the ups and downs, especially my first two years here.”

Mariners manager Scott Servais broke the news to Kikuchi in front of a packed clubhouse early Sunday morning.

“He did get up and talk to the whole group, which I thought was fantastic, thanking everybody,” Servais said. “He got very emotional. As he said to the group, ‘I've had my struggles here for a couple years, but you guys have helped me along the way,’ and I thought it was very meaningful to everybody in the room.”

Kikuchi’s credentials are certainly warranted for the selection. His 3.18 ERA ranks eighth in the AL and his 93 1/3 innings are tied for 15th, even with the caveat of pitching in a six-man rotation. His .195 opponent batting average is fourth best in the AL and his .618 OPS against is sixth best. Basically, he’s ranking right near the top of the statistical charts with the likes of Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Bieber in most categories.

And Kikuchi’s already-elite stuff has had a significant uptick that has raised eyebrows across the league, meshing his statistical prowess with an impressive eye test.

“When I first came over here, I was going to face, not just the highest level, highest competition in baseball, but I knew I would run into a few obstacles here and there,” Kikuchi said. “And I was able to, I feel like, overcome those.”

The numbers are the biggest reason Kikuchi is heading to his first All-Star Game, but on a broader level, his value within the Mariners’ rotation can’t be overstated, especially given how decimated the staff has been at times with injuries to James Paxton, Marco Gonzales, Justin Dunn and more.

Kikuchi began hitting a more elite stride immediately after Gonzales was sidelined in early May. Start after start, Servais would say that it’s the best Kikuchi has been since signing a four-year deal on Jan. 2, 2019. The left-hander keeps setting a new barometer.

In 10 starts since Gonzales first went down with a left forearm strain, Kikuchi is 5-2 with a 2.59 ERA and an opposing slash line of .185/.252/.347 (.599 OPS). And in his four starts leading up to Sunday’s selection, Kikuchi is 3-0 and leads the Majors with a 1.01 ERA.

Kikuchi also carries the pride of representing his country as the 14th Japanese-born All-Star ever selected, joining the likes of Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki, a 10-time All-Star, and former Mariners pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma (2013), Shigetoshi Hasegawa (‘03) and Kazuhiro Sasaki (’01-02).

Kikuchi was a three-time All-Star for the Saitama Seibu Lions in 2013, ’17 and ’18 in Nippon Professional Baseball, where he pitched for parts of nine seasons before making the Major League leap in ’19.

“It's just an honor to be able to be selected and participate in this All-Star Game,” Kikuchi said. “It's an honor to just kind of follow the footsteps of the Japanese players who have been selected prior.”

The Mariners had a few other strong All-Star candidates, most notably shortstop J.P. Crawford and outfielder Mitch Haniger.

Crawford was beaten out by Xander Bogaerts, Bo Bichette and Carlos Correa, and Haniger missed out to outfield starters Teoscar Hernández, Aaron Judge and Mike Trout, who is on the 60-day IL, and backups Michael Brantley, Joey Gallo, Adolis García and Cedric Mullins.

“I know organizationally, we're disappointed [Crawford] did not make the team,” Servais said. “But things like that happen, and it's not going to slow J.P. down. I had a chance talk with him about it today. He's going to keep driving the bus.”

Kikuchi is the Mariners’ first All-Star since his close friend, former Seattle DH Daniel Vogelbach, was selected in 2019. There was no Midsummer Classic in ’20 due to the pandemic.