Kikuchi cruises, continues upward trajectory

Mariners lefty has a 2.53 ERA with 61 strikeouts in last nine starts

June 19th, 2021

It’s never too late to celebrate a birthday.

, who turned 30 on Thursday, celebrated his latest rotation around the sun in style, throwing seven innings of one-run ball in the Mariners’ 5-1 win over the Rays on Friday at Safeco Field.

Starts like tonight are becoming the norm for Kikuchi, but in the not-so-distant past, that wasn’t the case. Given his ascension, manager Scott Servais believes the southpaw should be recognized among the game’s brightest stars.

“I think it’s something we should start talking about,” Servais said of Kikuchi’s All-Star candidacy. “I think he’s one of the top five left-handers in the league right now. I really do.”

An All-Star appearance would be quite the feat for Kikuchi considering how this season, and his career, began. Through four starts in 2021, Kikuchi had a 5.70 ERA. It was early, yes, but Kikuchi didn’t exactly have a track record of success to fall back on, owning a 5.39 ERA in his first two seasons. The early returns weren’t encouraging.

The stuff, the velocity, the flashes of unbridled brilliance and pure domination have always been there with Kikuchi. The consistency wasn’t. But in recent weeks, something has clicked.

Beginning with his seven shutout innings against the Astros on April 29, Kikuchi has been a different pitcher. He’s had more command. He’s been more aggressive, more confident. He’s even shown more emotion, busting out a “K strut” every now and then.

What that’s all leading to is the best stretch of his Major League career. In his last nine starts, including Friday night, Kikuchi has a 2.53 ERA with 61 strikeouts across 57 innings.

Kikuchi turning 30 has been symbolic of that transformation.

“He is now the dirty 30,” Servais said with a laugh. “We had fun yesterday with him and his birthday and whatnot. The 30s are a little bit different. He’s much more mature. You can definitely see that today and he took it out on the field.”

That maturity was definitely visible on an evening when Kikuchi got better as the game went along.

The first two innings weren’t a breeze for Kikuchi. Tampa Bay only dinged him for one run, but forced him to throw 41 pitches. Considering what unfolded on Thursday -- the Mariners used five relievers after starter Justin Dunn exited after two innings with right shoulder soreness -- the Mariners needed Kikuchi to eat up as many innings as possible.

From the third inning onward, however, Kikuchi was efficient. In the third inning, he needed eight pitches; in the fourth, he needed 10; and in the fifth, he needed 13. By attacking the zone, Kikuchi was able to cruise along, at one point retiring 10 consecutive batters.

“From the side, it looked like he got better as the game went on,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “The fastball velocity started to spike from the fifth, sixth and seventh innings for him. He looked really tough from the side. We had the one run. We got two quick hits. And then I don’t recall getting a hit for a while. So it was just a tough night. Their guy pitched really well.”

Kikuchi got help from some stellar defense courtesy of, who else, shortstop J.P. Crawford, who had a pair of phenomenal plays on the run. Crawford, who joined the Mariners the same season as Kikuchi, has enjoyed taking a backseat to the left-hander’s brilliance.

“His stuff tonight and the last couple starts has been really fun to play behind,” Crawford said. “I mean, it looks like hitters don’t even have a chance up there. It looks like they’re not picking up anything. And that’s really cool. It makes my job a lot easier, too.”

Assuming he stays healthy, Kikuchi will make three or four more starts before the All-Star break rolls around. If he keeps pitching like this, it won’t be shocking if he’s representing Seattle at the Midsummer Classic. Kikuchi doesn’t want the All-Star talk to become a distraction, but when asked about Servais’ endorsement, the left-hander’s tone was appreciative.

“It just means a lot coming from Skip,” Kikuchi said. “From year one, whenever I was struggling, he would always come talk to me. He always was able to cheer me up in tough times.

“We’d always talked about how year three would be my year. I’m just really glad that I am putting up good numbers this year. Everything’s going according to plan.”