The first time Yusei Kikuchi was told that his manager was publicly advocating for him to be a member of the American League All-Star team was two starts ago.
When told what Scott Servais had said, the Mariners lefty grew bashful, his cheeks turning red and burying his head at the suggestion. He was grateful for Servais’ comments, but he wouldn’t allow himself to think about such things.
“I only want to focus on helping my team win,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando at the time.
On Thursday afternoon, before Kikuchi took the mound at the bandbox that is Sahlen Field to face a potent Blue Jays lineup, capable of hanging six-plus runs on a starter, Servais reiterated his belief that Kikuchi has done enough to be chosen for the AL All-Star team.
“I think he has, and I say that but I’m always going to be partial to our guys,” he said. “I get a chance to watch him every day, grow and develop and see where he’s taken his game to. But I do think he has warranted an opportunity to participate in it.”
Kikuchi went out and delivered on Servais’ statement, tossing seven innings and allowing one run on five hits with a walk and six strikeouts against the Blue Jays. His only run allowed was a leadoff homer to Marcus Semien.
“I said it before the game started that I thought he was worthy of pitching in the All-Star Game,” Servais said postgame. “And he backed it up today.”
Kikuchi’s overall numbers aren’t eye-popping. In 15 starts this season, he’s 6-3 with a 3.18 ERA. In 93 1/3 innings pitched, he’s struck out 93 batters with 31 walks while opponents have posted a .195/.265/.353 slash line against him this season. With the Mariners using a six-man rotation, he has at least one or two starts fewer than most pitchers in the American League.
“There’s a lot of very talented pitchers out there and a lot of guys having big seasons and I certainly respect that,” Servais said. “But having a front-row seat watching Yusei and what he’s been able to do, it’s been pretty cool to see how he’s taken that next step. Hopefully he can continue upon what’s been a really good start this year.”
Among qualified starters in the American League, Kikuchi’s 3.18 ERA is the sixth lowest and the .195 batting average against is second lowest.
But stats can’t measure Kikuchi’s importance to the team. With the rotation riddled by injuries, he’s made every scheduled start and given Seattle 10 quality starts (6-plus innings pitched, three runs or fewer allowed) in his 15 turns this season. He’s only had two starts this season where he pitched fewer than five innings, and one of them came when he took a comebacker off his knee vs. the Angels.
He’s also avoided the blow-up inning every outing that would scuttle starts in his first two seasons.
“The first couple of years, Yusei was always kind of snake-bitten by the bad inning,” Servais said. “It would be a few walks, he’d give up soft hit and all of a sudden they would square one up and you’d look up and see a big crooked number (on the scoreboard). He’s been able to stay away from that.”
With each team guaranteed one representative, and the Mariners unlikely to get more than two, other All-Star possibilities are outfielder Mitch Haniger, shortstop J.P. Crawford and reliever Kendall Graveman.
But Kikuchi will have two more starts to add to a resume that seems deserving.