For those who want to nitpick and find criticism in everything, including victories, the Mariners’ inability to add runs after the third inning and do more with their multitude of hits would be viable if not petty complaints.
But given their opponent, which came into the series as one of the top teams in the American League, and the overall execution the Mariners displayed over nine innings in the field, on the mound, and at the plate, well, Seattle’s 5-1 home victory Friday over the Tampa Bay Rays felt like one of their better outcomes of the season.
“Fun ballgame tonight,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “It really had everything you’re looking for in a baseball game. You get great pitching, you play solid defense, timely hitting and we put some nice rallies together.”
With their second consecutive victory over Tampa, the Mariners will have two opportunities to take the four-game series against the AL East leaders. Seattle once again moved back to an even .500 at 36-36 and has won five of its past six games, while the Rays fell to 43-28.
The Mariners scored four runs off Rays starter Michael Wacha in the bottom of the first inning, erasing a 1-0 deficit, and scored another run off him in the third, which was more than enough run support for starter Yusei Kikuchi.
Kikuchi gave the Mariners seven solid innings, allowing one run on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts to improve to 4-3 and lower his ERA to 3.46. He wasn’t completely dominant, but something close to it.
All three walks visibly upset him, and he allowed base runners in five of his seven innings. But in a growing trend different from the past two seasons and even early in 2021, Kikuchi didn’t slow the game down to a halt with runners on base or try to execute the perfect un-hittable pitch a half-inch off the edge of the plate. No, he’s now getting angry and aggressive, ripping fastballs and cutters with commitment and intensity. It’s why none of the runners after the first inning scored or so much as moved up a base.
“I think the biggest part or reason is that I have so much confidence in all four of my pitches and being able to naturally get in a good rhythm,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “It’s not like I’m trying to get my tempo up or anything like that. When my tempo does slow down, it’s usually when I’m thinking about my mechanics too much. Recently, I’ve been feeling great out there mechanically and I think that’s why my tempo has gone up with that.”
And with the bullpen heavily taxed in the walk-off victory Thursday, Kikuchi provided a much-needed respite for many of the arms that have been used heavily this season.
His only run allowed came in the first inning following a leadoff single to Manuel Margot and a one-out single by Austin Meadows. Margot scored on Yandy Diaz’s soft ground ball to shortstop that couldn’t be turned into an inning-ending double play.
The Mariners beat Wacha around T-Mobile Park, racking up 11 hits off him in 3 2/3 innings.
J.P. Crawford led off the bottom of the first inning with a double to left field and then ran through the stop sign from third base coach Manny Acta to score on Kyle Seager’s one-out single to tie the game.
Ty France followed with a single that moved Seager to third and Jake Bauers looped a single into center off the end of his bat to make it 2-0. Seattle tacked on two more with two outs as Shed Long Jr. beat the shift with a run-scoring single to left-center and Luis Torrens dumped a run-scoring single into right field.
“We talked about this about a month ago — our ability to use the whole field and we were really struggling offensively,” Servais said. “I give our guys a ton of credit. I think we had nine opposite-field hits tonight — staying on some changeups, some breaking balls the other way. Obviously, Tampa was very aggressive on their defensive positioning, and we took advantage of that a little bit.”
The Mariners’ other run came in the third inning. France led off with a double, advanced to third on Bauers’ second hit of the game. The not-so-fleet Torrens drove in France with an infield single to make it 5-1.
Though they put runners on base, the Rays never really threatened against Kikuchi, only advancing a runner to second base in his final inning of work when Taylor Walls doubled with one out. But Kikuchi left him at second base, getting Brett Phillips to fly out to left and Margot to ground out to shortstop to end his outing.
He threw 103 pitches with 66 strikes with 18 of 28 first-pitch strikes. He also had 13 swings-and-misses, including nine on his cutter. He allowed just one ball in play with an exit velocity of more than 100 mph – the Walls double.
In his past nine starts, Kikuchi has tallied eight quality starts of at least six innings with three runs or fewer allowed. In that span, he’s got a 2.53 ERA with 61 strikeouts and 17 walks in 57 innings while opponents are batting just .173 against him.
It’s quite a difference from the first four starts when he had a 5.35 ERA with 20 strikeouts, nine walks and five homers allowed in 23 2/3 innings.
“It really comes down to command,” Servais said. “Yusei has got great stuff and an electric fastball. The cutter is kind of the pitch that kind of keeps him going. If he needs to throw a strike and he’s losing it a little bit, he goes to the cutter and leans on it heavily. The consistency, the quality of his stuff, being able to repeat it so it’s not just an inning here ending there, he gets rolling and he starts feeling and you can just see the confidence growing like they’re not gonna hit this guy. And he knows it.”
Kikuchi credits his work in the offseason.
“I definitely believe with my mechanics feeling good that command has gotten better because of that,” he said. “And I truly do believe it’s because I got a lot of reps in during this past offseason. I started throwing off a mound honestly in November and kind of threw bullpens almost four times a week. It was just repetition, just solidifying my mechanics, which was a major goal of mine.”