Kikuchi flirts with no-no in dominant outing

May 31st, 2021

SEATTLE -- For a chunk of Sunday afternoon under cloudy skies that eventually cleared, it looked like the Mariners were going to flip their fortune and twirl a no-hitter of their own in the park they have twice been history’s victim this season.

’s bid at what would’ve been Seattle’s first no-no since James Paxton in 2018 was broken up with a lazy leadoff single in the sixth. It was also through a shift, adding to the collective sigh among the 11,198 on hand at T-Mobile Park. But the left-hander couldn’t -- and didn’t -- dwell on it. He still had work to do.

Kikuchi wound up pitching into the seventh, an inning in which he gave up a leadoff single to Nick Solak and then a two-run homer to Joey Gallo. He registered two outs, but walked Nate Lowe in a full count that prompted Mariners manager Scott Servais to turn to the bullpen, ending what was among the many gems he’s spun in what is becoming a career year, as Seattle defeated Texas 4-2 to complete a four-game sweep.

“Obviously, I realized it during the fifth and sixth innings, but I tried not to let that affect me,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “I was just taking each hitter, focusing on each hitter that I was facing, one at a time.”

Gallo’s homer could be chalked up more to an impressive piece of hitting by an elite slugger than a poor pitch from Kikuchi. It came against a cutter at the very bottom of the zone that Gallo golfed 415 feet to center, 108 mph off the bat. The walk to Lowe was Kikuchi’s first and only free pass of the game. Overall, only five Texas batters reached base against the third-year big leaguer, one of which did so thanks to an uncharacteristically wide throw by J.P. Crawford in the fourth that was ruled an error.

If it wasn’t already, this is turning into a breakout season for Kikuchi, one that the Mariners have long envisioned since signing him to a four-year, $56 million deal in 2019. These past two months have been full of premium performances, and Sunday’s was right up there with the rest -- and it might have been his best from a pure stuff standpoint.

“When we first sat down and talked, we talked about how my third year would be very, very important,” Kikuchi said. “My first two years were obviously just as important, but those were my learning years. I had a lot of good experiences there, and I think I am trending upwards. I just look to keep improving.”

Kikuchi dialed his fastball as high as 98.5 mph and averaged a whopping 96.3 mph with the pitch, per Statcast. Off the heater, he tunneled his much-improved slider masterfully, and he also generated whiffs on half of the changeups he threw. Overall, Texas swung and missed at 16 of his 104 pitches.

“The intent today with the stuff is probably as good as we've ever seen it,” Servais said. “Deep [in] the count -- the 1-2, 0-2, even 2-2 counts. I don't know if you can hear it in the press box, but we can hear it on the field. He is grunting.”

“Yes, definitely,” Kikuchi said. “Obviously, putting myself in a two-strike count puts me in an advantage, in the driver's seat. And always, my intent is to strike the guy out, so yes, I do feel like my intent is really, really high in two-strike counts.”

Also of note: Kikuchi continues to eat innings. He’s now pitched at least six frames in nine of his 10 starts -- huge in the context of the Mariners’ beleaguered rotation, which will finally get Marco Gonzales back on Tuesday. Entering Sunday, only 10 starters had pitched at least six innings in at least nine starts, many of whom are top-of-the-rotation elite, like Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, Trevor Bauer and Walker Buehler.

Is Servais at the point where he feels confident that every sixth day, he’s going to consistently get 6-7 innings from the lefty?

“We really are,” Servais said. “The consistency of it, and even if he gives up a run or two early, you feel like he’s just got the weapons. He's got plenty of gas in the tank. This guy throws and prepares more than anybody else that we have. It really is some kind of program he puts himself through.”

Not to be overshadowed, Kikuchi also benefited from early run support from an offense that has been clicking for a full week following a season-long six-game losing streak that culminated last Sunday in San Diego.

In both the first and second times through the order, Kyle Lewis and Kyle Seager reached base, and Ty France followed with run-scoring hits to put Seattle up 3-0 through three innings. France has now reached base in all seven games since returning from an IL stint due to left wrist inflammation. Seager got out of a slump with his 10th homer, a solo shot in the fifth inning.

It all capped a four-game sweep that lifted the Mariners back to .500 just ahead of Memorial Day, which is typically the point of the season that most teams gauge where they are at competitively. Impressively, Seattle's reached this point with more players on the IL (15) than any team in the American League.

“It's a long year. I think we understand that,” France said. “It's not the 60-game sprint we had last year. It’s a full 162, and there's never any panic. We’ve got to just ride the waves. We had a little down stretch. But the pitchers are coming out doing a great job, and the bats are coming alive.”