Kikuchi comes up 'huge' at key time for Toronto

July 1st, 2022

TORONTO -- Timing is everything, and for the entire month of June, Yusei Kikuchi had struggled with that concept. 

Then, over six innings that were as surprising as they were necessary on Thursday night at Rogers Centre, Kikuchi looked like a brand new man. More than just a 4-1 win to open the series against the Rays, this was an opportunity for the Blue Jays to exhale, even just for a moment. 

Every pitch of Kikuchi’s June had been a battle, whether it be with his pitches or his confidence. The left-hander saw his ERA balloon from 3.48 to 5.08 and, frankly, looked even worse than those numbers suggested. Kikuchi shied away from his fastball at times and eventually shied away from the strike zone, leaving even eternal optimist Charlie Montoyo frustrated at times. Not on Thursday.

“I told him, ‘You’ve got better stuff than all of our starters,’” the Blue Jays' manager said. “That’s a big compliment to tell somebody when you have [Alek] Manoah, [José] Berríos and the rest of those guys. This is the key. When he throws strikes, he’s going to get people out and he’s going to strike them out. That’s what he did. It was huge.”

Granted, one strong outing doesn’t fix this. Kikuchi has had a few of those along the way, then quickly regressed when opponents adjust to his new tricks.

The timing of this, though, is absolutely crucial.

The Blue Jays and Rays play five games in four days this weekend, including a split doubleheader on Saturday. If it weren’t for the scheduling logjam, the Blue Jays may have entertained the idea of skipping Kikuchi for a trip through the rotation, but they needed all hands on deck. Having such an inconsistent starter opening this stretch of games was the ultimate risk, but to Kikuchi’s credit, he nailed it.

“He had confidence coming into this game, but it’s not the same,” Montoyo said. “You can have confidence in the bullpen, but when the game starts it’s a different story. You’re facing hitters. He had a first good inning, then he was really good. You could see that confidence.”

It’s done wonders for Kikuchi’s confidence, too. Finally, he got to “get after it with the boys in the clubhouse” after a win that he didn’t just participate in, but led.

“It just feels great,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “Especially with the three or four outings before, they obviously weren’t great. I understand the position that I put the team in. I put a lot of stress on the bullpen. Being able to perform today, go deep into the game, throw six innings and do my part … I’m just really happy to be able to contribute.”

Before exiting his postgame interview, Kikuchi paused to thank his teammates, too. He’s a new player on this roster and has struggled, but he praised his fellow Blue Jays for encouraging him and trying to lift his spirits, even with something as simple as bringing him a drink on the airplane. He knew they had his back, which made him want to rebound even more.

You’ll see the benefits of this outing Friday and the next day, particularly as the Blue Jays plot out how they’ll handle Saturday. Kevin Gausman will start one of those games -- which one is up to him -- but a sixth starter will be needed for the other.

Thomas Hatch has pitched better of late down in Triple-A, and with a spot on the 40-man roster, he’s a sensible choice. Kikuchi’s outing brings Max Castillo into the picture too, though, giving the Blue Jays real options instead of wedging them in one direction.

Castillo, the big, 23-year-old right-hander who opened the season in Double-A, earned his way to the big leagues and looked great in his last relief outing, throwing four scoreless innings with seven strikeouts. Toronto’s rotation depth isn’t necessarily a strength, given that the majority of its top pitching prospects are still a year or two away, so protecting the MLB-level depth it does have is a priority.

What could have spun into a series-long headache is now an advantage for the Blue Jays, who are looking to separate themselves from the Red Sox and Rays in a nightmarish AL East. Six innings of good timing makes it easy to forget a month of bad pitching, and while there’s still a long way to go for Kikuchi, it all starts with a confident first step like this.