Kikuchi's 'frustrating' night sinks Mariners

Loss to Astros pushes Seattle 5 1/2 back in West, 3 back in Wild Card

September 7th, 2021

HOUSTON -- It all snowballed for on Monday, and he and the Mariners now find themselves having returned to the glaring question that’s been at the forefront of the second half of the first-time All-Star’s season: What’s changed, and where do they go from here?

Kikuchi was tagged for six runs (four earned) in the second inning of a series-opening 11-2 loss to the Astros and was pulled before he could clean up the traffic he created. The 1 2/3 innings marked the shortest of the left-hander’s 67 career starts, not including when he was used once as an opener in 2019.

Kikuchi walked four of his first six batters, including each of his first three in that fateful second. A fielding error by second baseman Abraham Toro on a likely double play certainly changed the trajectory of the Astros’ offensive onslaught, setting up Jake Meyers and the three-run homer that immediately followed, but Kikuchi was unable to pitch himself out of trouble nonetheless.

On a night when two teams that the Mariners are chasing for an American League Wild Card spot both lost (the Yankees and Red Sox), the far more concerning development from Monday was that Kikuchi looked as far from his All-Star form as ever. The Blue Jays also made up ground with a victory to pull into a tie with Seattle, both teams now sitting three games back of the second Wild Card spot.

“I wasn't able to command my stuff tonight and I don't think I had anything working,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando.

It’s not only that Kikuchi’s fastball was down 1.6 mph from his season average, at 93.6 mph, or that he only threw one more than 95 mph. It’s that the misses on the pitch were so far out of the strike zone that the offering couldn’t even be used as a bait pitch. His slider was down 2.4 mph. His split-changeup didn’t move, making it a mid-80's feast pitch, including the Meyers homer and the first of two doubles from Jose Altuve.

Six of the eight batted balls against him were beyond the 95 mph exit velocity threshold that Statcast classifies as hard-hit

“No problems, physically,” Kikuchi said when asked about his health. “I just couldn’t get into a good rhythm tonight.”

The most puzzling aspect of it all was that Kikuchi threw seven scoreless innings against this very club six days prior at T-Mobile Park, an outing that the Mariners were confident was a turning point back to his elite first half. Take away that gem, though, and Kikuchi has a 7.29 ERA since a July 7 outing against the Yankees, the first of the season in which he looked vulnerable.

First 15 starts: .195/.265/.353 (.618 OPS) slash line, 15 HR, 25.4% K rate, 8.5% BB rate

Past 11 starts (including Monday): .293/.380/.553 (.933 OPS) slash line, 12 HR, 23.7% K rate, 11% BB rate

“I would term it ‘non-competitive misses’ tonight as what we saw,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And, you know, based on his last outing, when he was bumping 95-96 pretty consistently there, I certainly didn't expect to see what we saw tonight.”

“Definitely very frustrating,” Kikuchi said. “Like my previous outing, I thought I found it. There's actually been a few outings where I've been able to finish strong, thinking that my next outing, I’ll be able to perform a lot better. But that just hasn't necessarily been the case. So, to think that I found it, but to not have it is very frustrating.”

With just 24 games remaining, and likely just four starts left for Kikuchi, a possibly difficult decision looms for the Mariners on whether to exercise his four-year, $66 million club option. They must either opt in for the entirety, or opt out altogether. If they proceed with the latter, Kikuchi holds a one-year, $13 million player option, or he could elect free agency.

However, given the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s expiration looming on Dec. 1 and the uncertainty that could come in the free-agent market on the heels of his disappointing second half, it would seem like a strong bet that he’d stay in Seattle.

But first and foremost, he’d like to simply get back on the track he was on three to four months ago, when he was emerging as the staff ace.