TOKYO — As the photographers jockeyed, maneuvered and stalked Ichiro’s every move on the Tokyo Dome field, the second-biggest star of this trip — Yusei Kikuchi — was able to sneak out of the dugout without them noticing and head out to the field. For a rare occasion since returning to his home country, he wasn’t being hounded by photographers and media. It was a veteran move by a player familiar with the spotlight of the Japanese media.
“I’m pretty used to it,” he said through interpreter Justin Novak when asked about all the attention that would be placed on him in Japan.
Indeed, he’d been one of the biggest pitching stars in Japan over the past five seasons and was the top player to leave Nippon Professional Baseball for MLB this offseason.
If anything, Ichiro’s presence on the Mariners’ trip to Japan has made things somewhat easier for the latest Japanese star to put on a Seattle uniform. With so much of the focus on Ichiro in the first few games of the trip, Kikuchi has been able to maintain a normal routine and prepare for the biggest start of his professional career.
On Thursday night at the Tokyo Dome, Kikuchi will throw his first pitches as a member of the Mariners. When he steps to the mound in the top of the first inning, in front of what is expected to be a near-sellout crowd, he will become the first Japanese player to make his Major League Baseball debut in his home country of Japan.
It’s a rare honor that has left him humbled.
“Having my debut game in Tokyo, I never imagined this,” he said through an interpreter. “A few months ago, I had no idea this would happen. This opportunity is once in a lifetime. I hope I can make my contributions and I hope to perform well.”
Kikuchi has secured 35 tickets for friends and family.
“It’s a big day for me,” he said. “Lots of friends of mine, my family members, my teachers, my coaches and my former colleagues will all be there. I’m going to play in the major league. This is going to be a wonderful start for me to share with my loved ones.”
It would have been easy for the Mariners to cite the hype and pressure of performing in this situation as a reason to have Kikuchi make his debut in a different game. He could have pitched in one of the exhibitions vs. Yomiuri instead. The idea of a “soft landing” for MLB debuts is thrown around a lot in baseball. But since the moment he signed the four-year contract in the offseason and throughout spring training, Kikuchi has exhibited a poise and confidence that has impressed the coaching staff and front office.
There was nothing to protect him from.
“It is a lot to put on a young player, making his major-league debut here in the Tokyo Dome,” manager Scott Servais said. “One thing for certain is that he knows the mound. But early on in camp, it was easier for me that he was more than capable of handling everything we’ve thrown at him. His ability to continue to attack the strike zone is going to be important throughout the season, and I see no reason why he can’t go out and give us a really good outing in his first time out. I’m excited. I’m excited for him. I’m excited for our team and all of our future together.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto needed no convincing from Servais to put Kikuchi as the No. 2 starter behind Marco Gonzales and have him start a regular season game in Tokyo.
“He’s incredibly mature and he’s handled everything we’ve thrown at him in this transition,” Dipoto said. “Whether it’s his dedication to picking up English as a teenager in preparation for making his MLB debut to how hard he works and how diligent he is in looking at all of the information. He’s a really mature young guy.
“We felt like being on this stage accentuates his MLB debut, but this is a moment that he truly has been waiting for all of his life. So why not make it grand? We also felt he deserved it. He’s pitched well. And with the nuisance with having three lefties in our rotation, there had to be a way of creating separation, and Yusei was going to have pitch.”
His teammates believe he’s ready for this situation after spending the first month of spring training with him and watching him prepare and pitch.
“After every checkpoint and after every time we’ve seen some hype, he’s still the same guy,” Marco Gonzales said. “This hasn’t changed him at all. I know he’s excited. I don’t think there’s any nerves in there. I think he’s very comfortable. He’s a competitor and he’s ready to go. When that time comes, he’ll be able to lock it in and be ready to go.”
Said Wade LeBlanc: “He’s incredibly grounded. When you have your priorities in order, it’s easy to try and keep the game from speeding up on you. The game is going to speed up on you at times, it’s human nature, but to be able to keep moments in perspective the way he is able to do it, you have to have priorities in order, and he definitely does.”
Kikuchi was solid all spring, showing a fastball that sat around 93-94 mph with a solid curveball and an inconsistent slider that was due to the dry air of Arizona.
“This guy wants to be great,” Dipoto said. “He doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be great. He’s also very tough on himself. Every pitch, he wants to be so precise with every pitch that when he doesn’t execute it, you can see the frustration, whether it’s in a bullpen or a game. I admire that.”