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Kikuchi K's 10, but Mariners fall in 9th

Rookie starter allowed just one run on three hits over seven innings
@castrovince
May 4, 2019

CLEVELAND -- Yusei Kikuchi was rested but not rusty. In fact, the Mariners’ rookie left-hander, in his eighth start since coming from Japan, was resplendent Friday night at Progressive Field -- a clear silver lining on a night the Mariners didn’t do much at the plate and didn’t get the

CLEVELAND -- Yusei Kikuchi was rested but not rusty. In fact, the Mariners’ rookie left-hander, in his eighth start since coming from Japan, was resplendent Friday night at Progressive Field -- a clear silver lining on a night the Mariners didn’t do much at the plate and didn’t get the outs they needed in the ninth.

Anthony Swarzak gave up the winning run when pinch-hitter Tyler Naquin grounded an RBI single through the hole on the right side in the bottom of the ninth. The 2-1 loss to the Indians prolonged the frustration of a Mariners team that has dropped five straight and 14 of 19 to sully their surprise surge at the start of the season.

But while he didn’t get the help he needed on this night, Kikuchi continues to give the Mariners reasons to believe he can flourish stateside. In his first outing since a pre-planned one-inning start on April 26 -- an arrangement the Mariners plan to use about once a month to keep his innings in check -- Kikuchi delivered his longest and best start of the young season. He went seven innings, allowed just a run on three hits with a walk and 10 strikeouts for his first double-digit strikeout game in the bigs.

Box score

“As good as we’ve seen him since he’s been a Mariner,” manager Scott Servais said.

At a time when so little is going right for the Mariners – the offense falling into a funk after the homer-prone start, the bullpen lacking a lockdown presence, the errors coming in bunches, and, to make matters worse on Friday, Ryon Healy sustaining a groin injury -- Kikuchi’s a big bright spot.

Kikuchi took advantage of his unusual schedule. The one-inning outing against the Angels, he said, helped sharpen his focus and compelled him to think more about being aggressive and trusting his stuff. It was certainly notable that Kikuchi’s four-seam fastball, which had averaged out at 93.1 mph in his first six starts, jumped to 94.4 in this start, with a max of 97 mph, per Statcast.

“Last start it was only one inning, and I was able to zero in on that one inning,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “That carried over into this time. I was able to go one inning at a time, focus in, and that helped the velocity.”

The fastball was eye-catching, but the slider perhaps showed more subtle improvement. Though Kikuchi was getting good results with the pitch – a .194 average against and a 35.6 percent whiff rate – he wasn’t happy with the break. Using Trackman data from the Japan Pacific League, he was able to compare the slider’s motion here to what he had been accustomed to back home.

“I think I wasn’t pushing through hard enough on my fingers,” he said. “It wasn’t spinning as much.”

Kikuchi threw 21 sliders against the Indians and got five swinging strikes, three called strikes and three foul balls.

“I got a lot more break on that,” he said.

This start was also significant because it marked the first time Kikuchi faced an Major League team a second time. It was one thing to turn in a quality start (three runs on five hits over six innings) against Cleveland in a 6-4 loss on April 15, but this time the bulk of the Indians' lineup had faced him and could make an adjustment against him.

Kikuchi did give up the 1-0 lead granted to him by Jay Bruce’s 10th homer of the season. He allowed a leadoff double to Leonys Martin and a single to Jose Ramirez to put himself in a jam. He got Carlos Santana to ground into a double play, but Martin scored on the play to tie it. Kikuchi, though, never blinked again in this ballgame. He retired the last 10 batters he faced and struck out the side in his final inning.

“He’s understanding the league and how to go about things,” Servais said. “You can’t ask for much more. He’s got seven Major League starts right now. It’s really, really elite stuff.”

Swarzak didn’t have that kind of stuff in the ninth, walking leadoff man Francisco Lindor on four pitches, walking Santana with two out and then losing the game when Naquin got the bat on a breaking ball out of the zone to bring the final run home.

But Kikuchi’s adaptation to an odd schedule and attention to the finer details of his pitch movement were encouraging signs on an otherwise lost night.

Said Servais: “The sky’s the limit for Yusei.”

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.