Kikuchi struggles: 'He just didn't have it'

Mariners' All-Star left-hander has off night, falls to Yanks in final start before break

July 8th, 2021

SEATTLE -- The next time Yusei Kikuchi will take the mound, he’ll do so as an All-Star on Tuesday at Coors Field in Denver. But in his final tuneup for the Midsummer Classic, he didn’t quite look the part.

Kikuchi was hit hard early in a 5-4 loss to the Yankees on Wednesday at T-Mobile Park. He had a noticeable downtick on his fastball velocity, lacked bite on his slider and struggled to locate his cutter. It was the first time he’s looked mortal in more than two months, and it came against a Yankees lineup that, despite its recent struggles, showed its full power potential.

The Japanese left-hander tied a season high with five earned runs allowed, a mark he’d not reached since back-to-back starts on April 16 and April 23 against the Astros and Red Sox, respectively -- two first-place, elite-hitting teams. But Kikuchi has been a drastically different pitcher since then, which is why he was selected to his first All-Star Game last weekend as the Mariners’ lone representative.

Yet on Wednesday, Kikuchi looked more like his 2019 self -- a player who lacked conviction in the strike zone -- and it was correlated with not having his best stuff.

“I think the main thing was the velocity of my fastball wasn't there, as well as my command of it,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “And my secondary pitches just weren't as sharp as always as well.”

The spin rate on Kikuchi's heater was down 178 rpm, per Statcast. But more noticeable was that his fastball topped out at 96.2 mph and averaged 94 mph, well below the career-best 96.7 mph he averaged in his previous outing last Thursday against the Blue Jays, when he outdueled Hyun Jin Ryu at hitter-friendly Sahlen Stadium in Buffalo, N.Y. Wednesday also marked Kikuchi's lowest average fastball velocity in any of his 25 starts since 2019.

Kikuchi also failed to locate his slider at the bottom of the zone, which led to the Yankees knocking it around for three hits, including a booming 429-foot home run by Aaron Judge that reached the second deck in left field in the second inning. Kikuchi threw it just thrice after, a sign that he was no longer comfortable with it.

“The slider wasn't the difficult slider that we see,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It had more loop. It was just softer. It didn't have the typical bite that he's had almost every time out this year.”

Kikuchi throws as hard as any left-handed starter in the Majors, with a 95.7 mph average fastball velocity that trails only the Rays’ Shane McClanahan (97.3) and the White Sox's Carlos Rodón (95.9). It’s been a huge factor in why Kikuchi has finally put it all together this season, because that kind of velo has allowed him to blow by hitters in the strike zone and set up the rest of his arsenal.

“It just didn't have the explosive life that it typically has,” Servais said. “We see this guy at 95, 97 mph, some 98s. He just didn't have it tonight. That does happen throughout the course of the year. You don't have your ‘A’ game every time out there, and then you’ve got to kind of mix and match and work your way through it.”

If there was a positive takeaway, it’s that Kikuchi retired the final seven hitters he faced, finishing with poise, something he rarely showed in his rookie season when things got out of hand early.

“That's exactly right, and that's a huge development,” said Seattle catcher Tom Murphy, who crushed a three-run homer in the sixth that got the Mariners back into it. “I don't think many people will probably realize that, watching the game today. But those first few innings, they could have really turned into a disaster.”

Kikuchi recorded three strikeouts while retiring New York in order in both the fourth and fifth, at which point his pitch count was at 94.

“I kind of felt like in the beginning of the game, early on, I was rushing through my mechanics,” Kikuchi said. “And so in the fourth and fifth inning, I really focused on just taking my time within my mechanics, really focusing on balance, just being under control.”

Kikuchi and the Mariners are chalking up Wednesday as a one-off outlier amid a stellar season. And with Justus Sheffield’s left forearm strain putting Seattle down yet another starter -- its fourth from the Opening Day staff that has hit the IL this season -- the Mariners will need Kikuchi to again rebound and lead the staff in the manner he did when Marco Gonzales was sidelined in May.