If the Mariners weren’t planning on making Yusei Kikuchi’s next outing one of their proactive and restorative one-inning starts they predicted throughout this season, they should probably reassess their thinking and make it happen.
Based on the last two outings, it seems like the perfect time to allow the rookie left-hander a chance to rest and reset following a second straight outing where he failed to make it out of the fourth inning and sunk his team into a deficit it couldn’t begin to overcome. This time in a 9-3 loss to the L.A. Angels at T-Mobile Park.
“Yusei has a hard time getting any sort of rhythm early in ball games,” manager Scott Servais said. “I think it’s one of the things you have to learn is on the nights when you don’t have your A game, how do you survive? How do you keep your team in the game? It was uncharacteristic of him not to keep us in the game and just grind through it. He’s got to learn from it.”
Seattle has started yet another losing streak. This one is still germinal at just three games, but there are plenty of reasons to think it will continue. And it makes that one win to open the homestand — a 6-2 victory over the Rangers — seem like an anomaly. It’s the only victory in Seattle’s past 10 games.
The free fall from a 13-2 record on April 11 to 24-35 following their latest setback is a staggering 11-33 over that time. A .250 winning percentage for that long of a period is something worse than a step back. Not even a tanking team trying not to win is capable of such futility.
After being the starting pitcher that gave the Mariners their best chance at victory for the better part of a month, they’ve lost Kikuchi’s past two starts. He’s made winning difficult in both, giving up 10 hits in each and struggling with command and adjusted approaches from opposing hitters. His official line Thursday: 3 1/3 innings pitched, six runs allowed on 10 hits with two walks and no strikeouts. He threw 73 pitches with just 40 strikes.
“It was everything in general, I didn’t have my good stuff today,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak. “I have to learn to grind through the games when I don’t have my best stuff. That was something that I had to work on last start. And it came up again today. I’m still working through the adjustments.”
When he missed with a pitch, it was well out of the strike zone. And when he threw a strike, it was in the middle of the zone. That’s a difficult way to operate for any pitcher. Per Baseball Savant’s Statcast pitch tracking, Kikuchi got just one swing and miss the entire night. His curveball was inconsistent. Just six of the 13 thrown were strikes and he wasn’t intentionally missing with it. His slider was only minimally more effective.
“He’s been pretty good at putting guys away, but they did not swing and miss tonight,” Servais said. “He didn’t have much to miss the barrel and he left a lot of pitches in the zone and they took advantage of them.”
Servais has been coy about when Kikuchi would make his second one-inning start of the season. But based on the plan that general manager Jerry Dipoto described before the season and what Servais has reiterated during the season, it would come after five or six consecutive starts.
The Mariners are using it as a tool to control Kikuchi’s overall innings output this season and also keep him healthy for next season. It’s supposed to aid the transition of pitching on four days rest in Major League Baseball compared to five days rest in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
Kikuchi made six starts before the Mariners decided to have him make a one-inning start vs. the Rangers on April 26. They called up top prospect Justus Sheffield to piggyback off the start.
In the days after it, Kikuchi talked about the benefits of the one-inning start, particularly allowing him some time to work on his slider. He delivered his two best starts of the season following that outing, pitching seven innings, allowing one run to the Indians on May 3 and 7 2/3 innings, also allowing one run at Yankee Stadium.
During the stretch when the Mariners couldn’t seem to win a game, he led them to wins in four of his five starts.
Kikuchi has now made six regular starts since the one-inning start. He’s scheduled to pitch Tuesday against the Astros. It would seem like an ideal time for the one-inning thing.
“Those starts are mapped ahead of time,” Servais said. “We’ll sit down with him and talk about it. I’m more concerned about where he’s at. And making sure he learns from this.”
The Mariners would need to call up a pitcher to piggyback off that start. They already have minimal roster flexibility. Right-hander Erik Swanson is scheduled to pitch for Class AAA Tacoma on Friday and Sheffield on Saturday.
While Kikuchi understands the starts are helpful to the overall plan, he also wants to be just like the rest of the starters in the rotation.
“It’s not my decision,” he said. “I will sit and listen to what the coaches say about it. No matter what, I just have to get ready for my next start. There’s going to be highs and lows throughout the season. I just want to be ready and make sure I have by best stuff out there.”
Perhaps it was a sign of things to come when Kikuchi walked the first two batters of the game and then gave up a scalding RBI single to Albert Pujols.
Kikuchi regrouped to retire the next three batters to keep it to just one run. But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. The Angels tacked on two more in a lengthy second inning. Kole Calhoun led off with a solo homer to deep right-center to push the lead to 2-0. Mike Trout later made it 3-0, dumping a two-out single into right-center.
The Angels pushed it to 4-0 in the third inning on Cesar Puello’s long two-out solo homer to right-center.
Kikuchi never got out of the fourth. He gave up back-to-back singles to start the inning. Later with one-out, Trout ripped a line drive into the left-field corner for a two-run single to end Kikuchi’s outing.
Down 6-0, the Mariners were basically done. But that lead grew to 8-0 in the fifth inning when David McKay, who was able to work out of Kikuchi’s situation in the fourth, gave up two runs in the fifth. Only one run was earned because Tim Beckham’s 14th error — a mishandled ground ball — resulted in the Mariners’ 55th unearned run on the season. Seattle now has 64 errors and is on pace to commit 175 this season, which would be the most for any team since the 1999 Expos, who committed 160.
Beckham got that one run back and added another in the bottom of the inning, smashing a two-run homer into the Mariners’ bullpen for Seattle’s first runs of the game. It was his 11th homer of the season.
He drove in the Mariners’ third run of the game in the seventh inning with a fielder’s choice.
“It’s hard when you are down in the game early, but you have to find a way to create some offense and get back in the game,” Servais said. “We haven’t done that in these games when we get down four or five runs and it gets away from us.”