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Notes: Kikuchi improving; hitting a reverse cycle

@gregjohnsmlb
February 28, 2020

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One of the key points for the Mariners’ rotation this spring will be the progress of Yusei Kikuchi, and the 28-year-old lefty sent out some positive signals with a strong 2 1/3-inning start in the Mariners’ 6-2 win over the D-backs at Salt River Fields.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- One of the key points for the Mariners’ rotation this spring will be the progress of Yusei Kikuchi, and the 28-year-old lefty sent out some positive signals with a strong 2 1/3-inning start in the Mariners’ 6-2 win over the D-backs at Salt River Fields.

Kikuchi’s results were much more encouraging in his second outing of the spring as he again sat at 94-96 mph with his fastball, but this time backed up that increased velocity with a much-improved slider as he allowed just one hit and one run with two walks and three strikeouts in a 45-pitch appearance.

“The fastball felt great today and last time as well,” Kikuchi said through translator Kevin Ando. “My main focus was the slider and it was a great feeling today.”

Kikuchi says increased velocity is helping all his pitches. He averaged 92.5 mph on his fastball last year, according to Statcast, while his slider was at 86 mph. He believes the slider will be more effective if he can throw it around 90 mph this year, which will give it more separation from his curve and not let hitters identify it as easily.

Kikuchi likes to throw a lot and said new pitching coach Pete Woodworth is allowing him to work longer this spring than last, when the Mariners tried to hold him back to preserve his arm. Perhaps as a result, he’s feeling strong and hiked his pitch count to 45 on Friday without issue.

“I’m able to throw a lot more this spring, especially because Woody, the new pitching coach, really does believe in me and trusts me on my work ethic and just how I work,” Kikuchi said. “So I’m able to throw a lot more this year. But if someone doesn’t really stop me, I’ll just keep on throwing. So I do need someone to stop me at some point.”

Lewis leads reverse cycle
The Mariners pulled off the relatively rare feat of a “reverse cycle” to start the second inning against D-backs starter Alex Young. Rookie right fielder Kyle Lewis led off with a homer to left, José Marmolejos followed with a triple, Tim Lopes drove him in with a double and Dee Gordon finished the run with an RBI single.

Seattle jumped on Justin Verlander of the Astros for a reverse cycle leading off a regular-season game in Houston in 2018, which was the first time a Major League team had started a game in that fashion in the live-ball era (since 1920). This time the Mariners waited for the second inning and it came in a Cactus League contest.

Lewis’ homer was his first of the spring and snapped his 0-for-7 start. Lopes, who played third base in this one, has been red hot over his first four games and leads the Cactus League with five doubles while going 6-for-11 with six RBIs.

Gordon, making his first start at shortstop, went 3-for-3 with a double and stole a base.

Julio shows his skills
While the Mariners were happy to see 19-year-old Julio Rodriguez get his first hit in the spring with a sharp single in the ninth inning of Thursday’s loss to the Giants, manager Scott Servais was more impressed by the athleticism displayed in right field by the 6-foot-4, 225-pound teen.

Rodriguez turned and got to the wall to pull in a deep drive by Joey Rickard in the seventh inning just after entering the game, making a tough play look almost routine.

“It was a tremendous jump,” Servais said. “I got a great view of it from where I was sitting. His first step, perfect drop step, went back over and that’s a tough play. A right-hander with the ball slicing away from you, he made it look pretty easy. Really impressive.”

Rodriguez is still trying to find his rhythm at the plate as he flied out to right field in his lone at-bat on Friday against the D-backs and is 1-for-9 with five strikeouts on the spring in his first Major League camp.

Taijuan ready to roll
Taijuan Walker threw two innings in a simulated game on a backfield at the Mariners’ complex on Friday in his last tune up before making his Cactus League debut sometime next week. The free agent addition has been on a slightly delayed program as he returns from a two-year absence with elbow and shoulder issues.

Instead of pushing him into game action, the Mariners had the 27-year-old throw two simulated situations this week.

“He maybe wasn’t quite as sharp today. He needs to get in a real game,” Servais said. “He’s ready to roll. I thought the last 10 pitches he threw today were much better. He got after it there. He’s ready to get in an ‘A’ game and will be scheduled in somewhere next week.”

Up next
Lefty Marco Gonzales makes his second start of the spring when Seattle hosts the Royals in a 12:10 p.m. PT game Saturday at Peoria Stadium. The Mariners' No. 1 starter gave up five runs on three hits and a pair of walks in his debut against the Cubs. Free agent reliever Yoshihisa Hirano and returners Brandon Brennan and Dan Altavilla are among the scheduled relievers in the game, which will be televised live in the Seattle market and on MLB.TV.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.