'Atta boy, Kuch': Kikuchi finds new gear in win over Yanks

April 17th, 2024

TORONTO -- has both hands on the wheel now.

The feel-good story of Kikuchi’s 2023 resurgence has spilled into a new year, but there are no more pleasant surprises. Kikuchi is in full control. The expectations are high, and Kikuchi just keeps reaching higher.

Tuesday night’s 5-4 win over the Yankees at Rogers Centre was Kikuchi at his best, but we’re learning that it can take many shapes. The gifted lefty has always had the ability to wow you if you look up at your television at just the right moment, but Kikuchi is showing that he can grind, adapt and wrestle a lineup to the ground.

Kikuchi’s flair was still there in all its splendor as he struck out the side in the top of the first, mowing through Anthony Volpe, Juan Soto and Aaron Judge. You’ve probably heard of them. After getting Soto to swing through a 97.8 mph fastball, the hardest pitch he threw all night, Kikuchi ended the inning with some high heat to get Judge. There was something so emphatic about Kikuchi challenging Judge with that exact pitch in that exact spot.

Last year, Kikuchi was good. This year, he knows it. It’s in his bones now.

“I’m very, very proud,” Vladimir Guerrero Jr. said through a club interpreter, “very proud of Kikuchi. He’s one of the guys who works very hard, and when he goes out there every fifth day, I know he gives everything he has. This is well deserved for him, and hopefully he continues doing that.”

Kikuchi is beloved in that clubhouse. When it was Kikuchi’s turn to meet with the media, Guerrero walked past and bellowed, “Atta boy, Kuch!”

Kikuchi smiled and got through the rest of his answer, but by the time he was fielding his next question, George Springer was walking past the scrum and let out a joyous, “Woo, Kuch!”

It’s moments like this, as much as the stat lines, that have buoyed Kikuchi. You can see it when he speaks. It’s a different voice than we heard in 2022, different smile, different eyes.

“This is my sixth year in MLB, but I think this is the most confident I’ve felt,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “It’s not just my performance, but in all of my pitches right now.”

How Kikuchi finished Tuesday's start has to be even more encouraging, though. Facing Soto again, Kikuchi appeared to aggravate his side and was trying to stretch out on the mound. Manager John Schneider and the Blue Jays’ training staff visited the mound twice in quick succession, but Kikuchi convinced them he could go on, and a few warmup pitches later, he was back to business.

After getting Judge and Stanton, Kikuchi forced a fly ball to left field, where Davis Schneider laid out to deliver the play of the game, robbing Anthony Rizzo of extra bases with a remarkable diving catch. There was Kikuchi, cheering louder than anyone in the building as he pounded his hand into his glove. He’d adapted, escaped and survived.

Thankfully, Kikuchi was only dealing with cramping on the mound, which has happened before. He’s quietly one of the best athletes on the team and knows his body very well, so once Schneider heard that Kikuchi could keep going, he let him roll.

“He’s pretty locked in. I feel like I say this every time with him, but confidence is a big thing,” Schneider said. “You trust him, man. He’s being much more efficient with his pitch count. He’s got great [stuff]. His stuff is electric. He’s just in a really good spot.”

Tuesday’s win left Kikuchi with a 2.08 ERA, which looked like it would be even lower until the official scorer changed a second-inning error to a hit, causing the lone run to be earned. Kikuchi’s peripherals all back up his strong start, too, and the nine strikeouts Tuesday tied the most Kikuchi has had with the Blue Jays.

Since Kikuchi’s uneven 2024 debut in St. Petersburg against the Rays on March 30, he has allowed just two runs over 17 1/3 innings (1.04 ERA) with 25 strikeouts and five walks. Add all the “early” asterisks you want, this might be the best we’ve seen Kikuchi pitch with the Blue Jays.

Kikuchi’s first season with Toronto saw him go 6-7 with a 5.19 ERA in 2022, but that has faded over the horizon at this point. Kikuchi is no longer trying to shake something off or reclaim the narrative. Kikuchi controls that now, and it doesn’t look like anyone is going to take that away from him.