Mariners manager Scott Servais closed the 2019 season with a simple request.
“We had a meeting, and he told me to become a new guy in 2020,” second-year starter Yusei Kikuchi said through an interpreter after his second intrasquad start Monday night. “I believe I am, and I’m really looking forward to pitching this season.”
OK, so maybe it’s not so simple after all. All Kikuchi has to do is transcend an underwhelming rookie season that included a 6-11 record and a 5.46 ERA in 32 starts. He has to hold his own in a six-man rotation that also features Marco Gonzalez, Taijuan Walker, Kendall Graveman and prospects Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn. He has to improve both his pitches and his mentality on the mound — and do so in a shortened season, starting with a road game against the high-octane Houston Astros on Sunday.
If he can do all that, the 27-year-old starter from Morioka, Japan, might yet develop into a foundational rotation piece for a Seattle club searching for accomplished arms.
“In spring training in Arizona, he was a different guy than we saw last year,” Servais said Monday afternoon, prior to Kikuchi’s start. “His stuff was better. I thought his tempo — his attacking mindset — was a little bit better. Last time out (on July 14), his stuff wasn’t quite as good and he did not attack the same way.
“So (you need to) get after it and attack the strike zone with all your pitches, and if one or two of them get hit, so be it. That’s going to happen. You’ve got to just keep pounding the strike zone and keep going after them. It’s not one specific thing.
“I will say, Yusei’s stuff is different now than it was a year ago. The curveball is tighter. He’s made some adjustments to that. His change-up is a real pitch now. Before it was absolutely his fourth pitch. It was just fastball-slider-curveball. So he’s working in a few change-ups today, just to get all of his pitches going. But I’m looking for more of his demeanor and just being in attack mode today. That’s what we’re looking to see.”
And, for the most part, that’s what Servais saw. Against a Steelheads squad that featured precious few major-leaguers, Kikuchi did not allow a hit in his first three innings of work. His success hit a skid in the fourth, surrendering back-to-back soft singles and a walk before infielder Noelvi Marte sent a dribbler to the mound. Kikuchi struggled to corral it, then sent an errant throw to first that deflected off Marte and allowed two runs to score.
In all, he allowed two runs — one earned — and two hits in four innings. And Servais didn’t seem particularly troubled by the late lapse.
“I know he would have liked to finish on a little bit of a stronger note, but it’s all good,” Servais said. “He’s healthy and he’ll be ready to go when we get to Houston.”
The question remains which version of Kikuchi will arrive. After all, a shortened intrasquad game against a lineup of undercooked minor-leaguers can’t truly compare with the prodigious pop he’ll face in Houston. In four starts against the Astros last season, Kikuchi went 0-2 and surrendered 12 earned runs and 26 hits in 20 innings.
But that was the old Kikuchi. He’s looking to start year two by granting his manager’s request.
“I made 32 starts last year. I learned a lot from each and every start, and I really worked hard this offseason,” Kikuchi said. “I’m just excited, because I believe all of my pitches are different compared to last year. I’m really excited.”
Hit the brakes on Hirano
First-year Mariners reliever Yoshihisa Hirano recently was cleared to participate in workouts after testing positive for COVID-19 on June 25.
But don’t expect the 36-year-old former Diamondback to make an impact for the Mariners just yet.
“He’s just getting in here, playing catch. He has not been on a mound yet,” Servais said of Hirano on Tuesday. “When he was down with COVID, he was down. He was not able to do a whole lot of throwing and even work out a lot. So we have to be careful in his ramp-up.
“With some of the guys, you can just jump them right in. They had been throwing a lot with live BPs and all this other stuff on their own. He has not been doing that. So we’re going to have to be careful in how we ramp him up.”
Hirano — who will likely start the season on the COVID-19 injured list — compiled a 4.75 ERA in 62 games and 53 innings with Arizona last season.
Vogelbach, Long searching for their swings
Shed Long Jr. and Daniel Vogelbach will both be counted on to deliver offensive firepower for the Mariners this season.
Which makes their summer camp slumps all the more concerning.
The 24-year-old Long, Seattle’s presumed opening-day starter at second base, has hit .208 with five hits (and zero extra-base hits) in 24 plate appearances in the Mariners’ intrasquad games. And Vogelbach, who Servais says impressed in spring training, has likewise batted just .105 with two hits and eight strikeouts thus far in summer camp.
“He and Shed I’d put in the same bucket. They just haven’t been consistent with what they’re doing,” Servais said. “I’ve been talking to Vogey a little bit the last couple days. I think he’s seeing the ball OK, but he needs to be a little bit more aggressive.
“The point that I made to him is sometimes when you’re searching for your swing, there’s only one way to find it. You’ve got to swing, versus looking for the perfect pitch and thinking you’re going to hammer that ball. I think his intent has been a lot better the last couple nights, looking for balls. You may swing at a couple balls in the dirt. That’s OK. Ultimately he’s just trying to find his swing.”
Murphy still sitting
Mariners catcher Tom Murphy missed another intrasquad game Tuesday as he continues to nurse a sore left ankle, but Servais didn’t seem concerned that his 29-year-old catcher’s injury will linger into the regular season. He concluded that “Murph is ready to go. We’re trying to get that foot calmed down best we can before we head to Houston.”
Murphy hit .273 in 75 games last season, adding 18 homers and 40 RBI.
- Kendall Graveman continued to impress in the intrasquad scrimmage Tuesday, allowing just one hit in four scoreless innings. The 29-year-old former Oakland Athletic will be Seattle’s No. 4 starter to begin the regular season.
- Jose Marmolejos continued to make his case for a spot on the opening-day roster Tuesday, going 2 for 2 with an opposite field three-run homer in the first inning. Marmolejos can contribute defensively at both first base and left field as well.
- The Mariners’ youth movement showed up as well, as both first baseman Evan White and center fielder Kyle Lewis homered off reliever Dan Altavilla in the fourth inning Tuesday. White hooked a ball that Servais estimated traveled 475 feet foul down the third-base line in the first inning as well.