Kikuchi struck out Joey Votto — the second batter he faced — in impressive fashion, throwing two total innings and allowing two unearned runs.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The innocence of Yusei Kikuchi’s brief existence in Major League Baseball reveals itself in the most unexpected of ways.
From a talent standpoint, it was obvious early in his two-inning debut Monday that Kikuchi belongs at baseball’s highest level.
The most memorable moment from the outing came against the second batter of the game. Facing Cincinnati’s Joey Votto, a perennial All-Star and National League MVP candidate and one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball, Kikuchi fell behind 2-0, then battled back to even the count at 2-2. After Votto fouled off a fastball, Kikuchi came back with a breaking ball — not even his best of the day — and it elicited an awkward, hesitant swing and miss for strike three. Even in the unimportant games of spring, Votto is a tough out. His reputation is known in Japan.
“I mean, it’s spring training, so I’m sure he’s tuning up his swing,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak. “But to strike out a hitter the caliber of Joey Votto, I’m really happy with that result today.”
While Kikuchi was respectfully deferential toward the more-accomplished player to the media, later in the clubhouse, Novak showed a video of Votto’s regrettable strike three swing from Twitter. Kikuchi allowed himself a shared smile with his interpreter.
“I liked the life on his pitches, the curveball, the lateness, the break to it,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Joey Votto is about as good as it gets, and Yusei went right after him.”
Votto was very complimentary in an interview with a large group of Japanese reporters.
“Oh my gosh,” Votto joked at first when asked about the strikeout before getting serious. “Very good curveball. It was very surprising. In the league, there are not very many pitchers that throw a curveball like that. (Hyun-jin) Ryu of the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and maybe a couple of others that throw a very traditional curveball like that from the left-hand side. It has lots of potential.”
The Votto strikeout was the second out of the first inning. Kikuchi then quickly showed a little athleticism, hustling off the mound and sprinting to first base to receive a throw from Ryon Healy, who made a nice stop on Yasiel Puig’s ground ball. It concluded a 1-2-3 inning where Kikuchi threw 13 pitches, nine of them strikes.
The second inning wasn’t quite as simple, despite the Mariners leading 3-0. Kikuchi walked Eugenio Suarez, a dangerous, if not widely known hitter, on seven pitches. A bit of irritation crept into Kikuchi’s typically poker-faced demeanor.
“I knew he was a really good hitter and I wanted to compete against him and face him, but it ended up being a walk and I was a little frustrated,” Kikuchi said.
The leadoff runner should have been quickly erased. Kikuchi got Chris Okey to hit a bouncing ball to shortstop that should have been an easy double play. But Tim Beckham bobbled then dropped the ball as he tried to flip it to second, registering no outs.
The error loomed costly when the next batter, Kyle Farmer, looped a single into center to allow a run to score. Center fielder Dom Thompson-Williams mishandled the ball, allowing Okey to advance to third on the play for another error.
Kikuchi didn’t fall apart. He got Phillip Ervin to hit a ground ball to Shed Long, who turned it into a 5-4-3 double play. But that second error for the extra base allowed another run to score.
The inning ended on another ground-ball out to Long, who was starting his first game at third this spring.
“He’s pitched a lot of professional baseball,” Servais said of Kikuchi. “You certainly saw that out there today. We didn’t play great defense behind him, got the big double play that one inning that kind of helped him out.”
Both of the runs were unearned. Kikuchi’s final line was two innings pitched, one hit, no earned runs, a strikeout and a walk. He threw 29 pitches with 19 strikes.
“Pretty good, better than pretty good,” Servais said. “That was outstanding for the first time out there. He had a little nerves, no doubt about it, but his fastball was really good, he was up to 95 (mph), the breaking pitches we know are outstanding. Thought he handled it really, really well. He’s going to take a little time to get his routine. You saw him throwing outside the dugout before, there’s a few adjustments there, but really happy for him getting that first outing under his belt.”
Getting an inning with a little traffic on the bases isn’t a bad thing early in spring training from an experience standpoint.
“Obviously, whenever you are up on the mound and shut them down 1-2-3,” Kikuchi said. “But after I let some guys on I think was able to keep my pitch count low and get some double-play balls so I was happy with what I did.”
Given the hype surrounding him and the adjustment to a new level and type of baseball, it was an acceptable outing.
“I felt really good throwing the ball,” he said. “Going into the game, I was a little nervous obviously, but it ended up well.”
What made him the most nervous?
“I’ve been pitching in Japan for the last nine years and I wanted to test what I was doing in Japan against major-league hitters and see how they reacted to it. I was really excited and nervous about that.”
Kikuchi had an immediate takeaway from the two innings of work.
“What I got from today is that major-league hitters are very powerful,” he said. “That’s something I learned today and I’m going to take home and work on and see how it will feel on my next start.”
The adjustment to the ball used by Major League Baseball, which has a slicker cover and smaller seams than the ball he used in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, is ongoing.
“I’m getting used to it,” he said. “It’s still kind of slipping out of my hand on some pitches, but there were a lot of pitches that I really liked today, including the double play I got and the check-swing I got from Puig. Those felt really good out of my hand. So I will try to build from that.”
Kikuchi is likely to pitch Saturday in Surprise, Ariz., against the Royals.