Kikuchi continues surprise season with his best start as a Blue Jay

Springer hits his 55th leadoff home run, moving him into 2nd place all-time

June 25th, 2023

TORONTO -- There’s no player on this Blue Jays roster who wears their confidence as clearly as

You don’t even need to see the ball reach the plate. All you need to see is Kikuchi’s left leg swing through his delivery, then kick up high again as it spins him like a figure skater towards his own dugout. If Kikuchi looks like he’s about to attempt a triple axel, everything is going well. 

Sunday’s 12-1 win was the best of Kikuchi, whose seven innings on 101 pitches are both new highs since he joined the Blue Jays. Yes, this came against the last-place A’s and a lineup of OPS that resemble AL East winning percentages, but the eye test and the numbers agree. This was a convicted, efficient Kikuchi, finally pitching like the sum of his parts instead of something less.

Manager John Schneider sees a Kikuchi who is suddenly more confident in his talent and more aware that he can blow a fastball by someone.

“And not being afraid,” Schneider continued. “When you look back to last year, 2-0 count, you could see him getting a little tense. It’s the exact opposite right now. You feel comfortable with him in any count. I think he dropped a 3-0 curveball in to [Brent] Rooker. He knows his stuff is good and he’s really convicted.”

Spring Training feels like a lifetime ago on June 25, but Kikuchi’s 3.75 ERA wasn’t the plan. He was supposed to compete for the No. 5 job, maybe spend the season bouncing in and out of the rotation while teasing everyone with flashes of something that never really sticks. Instead, he’s part of the solution, helping to solidify the rotation while Opening Day starter Alek Manoah and his 6.36 ERA sit at the Blue Jays’ training complex in Dunedin, Fla., looking for answers.

Kikuchi has always had the talent. This is just another snapshot of him putting it together over a complete outing, which has eluded him for much of his MLB career. There’s nothing physically imposing about Kikuchi, but he gets everything out of his frame, torquing through his delivery to top out at 97 mph Sunday. His breaking ball tends to have a new name, shape and success rate every time he takes the mound, but again, Sunday was the best version. 

“I haven’t been able to pitch through the seventh inning ever since I joined the Blue Jays, so that was great,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “Also, I think I was able to save the bullpen. That was really good today.”

Twelve runs don’t hurt, either. 

opened it up with the 55th leadoff home run of his career, moving him to second place in MLB history behind only the great Rickey Henderson (81). , and joined Springer with two-hit days, as well, including Biggio’s seventh home run of the season as he continues to quietly turn the corner. 

“We had chances,” Schneider said. “We had the bases loaded and scored one, then second and third and scored one. You want to keep adding on. George’s at-bat with the sac fly was big to get another run in, but when you continue to add on late with Biggio’s homer and [Santiago] Espinal’s big double, that’s big. Especially leading into an off-day, you have a big exhale and a deep breath.”

It all adds up to a series win. Friday’s loss in the opener against the A’s wasn’t pretty, but the Blue Jays are looking at a soft part of their schedule away from the monsters of the AL East. 

“I know what our record is outside of the AL East,” Schneider said. “That will be interesting to see how it plays out. We’ve been talking about it for the last week or so that … it’s time to just show who we are. No matter who we’re playing and no matter where we’re playing, it’s time to show who we are consistently.”

That’s exactly what Kikuchi has been doing lately. He wasn’t the one the Blue Jays expected to be reliable, but this season has been short on pleasant surprises and they’ll take them where they can get them. 

Kikuchi's season offers a surprising blueprint for the Blue Jays. He’s adjusted and found ways to play up to his talent level, which is all this club needs to go over the top and change its trajectory for the stretch run.