Any lingering postseason hopes dimmed significantly in a homestand that featured an inexplicable series loss to the lowly Diamondbacks and a frustrating lost series to the Red Sox in defeats that they had could’ve easily been wins.
And now with Saturday’s disappointing 8-1 loss to the Royals, a team that has delivered multiple gut-punch losses to derail their dream of a postseason appearance, the Mariners find themselves four games back for the second American League wild-card spot with 14 games left to play and three teams ahead of them.
Mathematically, they aren’t done. But realistically, they know the end is near.
Yusei Kikuchi dug the Mariners an early hole, throwing a plethora of pitches at a mind-numbingly slow pace in yet another abbreviated outing where he was basically ineffective from the first pitch with no command. It was bookended by an uncharacteristic error from Kyle Seager on a sure double play, opening the floodgates to a four-run eighth inning, crushing any lingering hopes of a miracle ninth-inning rally when the deficit ballooned to seven runs from three.
“I always talk about how starting pitching sets the tone for the ballgame,” manager Scott Servais said. “And Yusei coming out tonight with really no command of any of his pitches was a challenge. It’s not what we were looking for. … I thought he had, you know, righted things a little bit after his last outing, but certainly that wasn’t the case tonight.”
The Mariners did nothing offensively, registering three hits — two from Ty France — and only got one runner to second base.
“We didn’t get much going offensively,” Servais said. “We didn’t play good game. It wasn’t a good night. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. We needed to get a better effort out of our starter, and it just didn’t happen tonight.”
Kikuchi’s final line: three innings, three runs allowed on eight hits with no walks, eight strikeouts and three wild pitches.
Beyond those numbers, Kikuchi’s pitches lacked life and command. He threw a whopping 63 pitches to get the six total outs in the first two innings. Of the 17 batters he faced, he threw first-pitch strikes to just nine of them and went to three-ball counts on 10 batters.
MLB Statcast data showed that the velocity on each of his pitches was down 1-3 mph and the spin rate was down a minimum of 150 revolutions per minute.
And because of the inordinate number of pitches thrown and his tendency to work slowly with runners on base, he sapped the game of any early rhythm or enthusiasm.
In his last outing, he pitched five solid innings vs. Arizona, striking out eight batters, allowing one run on six hits. He threw with intent and pace. It was one of a few solid outings in what has been a disappointing second half for Kikuchi. In his last 13 starts, he’s posted a 1-6 record with a 5.98 ERA. He’s pitched six innings or more just three times while throwing out four starts of fewer than five innings.
“My previous outing, I felt like I was able to kind of get back to my groove,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “But today, I just didn’t have it.”
The unpredictability of Kikuchi from outing to outing wears on the team.
“It really puts a lot of stress on your entire pitching staff and guys in the bullpen,” Servais said. “You have to run multiple guys out there when he has one of those clunkers, which is what happened tonight. Anytime you’re trying to put your team in a situation where you want to play postseason baseball, you need to have an idea of what to expect from guys every time out there.”
Kikuchi seems to have no answers.
“All I want to do is help the team win and put the team in a good position to win every time I go out and take the ball,” he said. “As of late, I just haven’t been able to do that. And so it is very, very frustrating.”
Royals leadoff hitter Whit Merrifield started the first by reaching on an infield “single” that could’ve been ruled an error on Seager for a poor throw to first base.
Merrifield advanced to second on a first-pitch wild pitch to Nicky Lopez. An apparent miscommunication between Kikuchi and catcher Tom Murphy on their changing signs — used with a runner on second — led to another wild pitch that put Merrifield on third. Later with one out, Kikuchi uncorked his third wild pitch in the inning, allowing Merrifield to score.
After the wild pitch adventures, Kikuchi allowed three straight singles as the Royals added a run on Andrew Benintendi’s line drive into right field. When Kikuchi finally got Michael A. Taylor to fly out to end the inning, he’d thrown 30 pitches.
In the second inning, Kikuchi allowed back-to-back singles and then a careless stolen base put runners on second and third with no outs. But he managed to get out of it, striking out Merrifield, getting an out at the plate with the drawn-in infield and striking out Salvador Perez for the second time. But he also needed to throw 33 pitches for the scoreless second.
Kikuchi would make it one more inning, allowing another run on back-to-back two-out doubles from Mondesi and Taylor.
With Kikuchi at 83 pitches (53 strikes), Servais had seen enough. He went to his bullpen to cover the remaining innings.
Meanwhile, the Mariners offense was sluggish and nonproductive against Royals starter Kris Bubic. The big lefty pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing one run on two hits with four walks and two strikeouts.
He benefitted twice from inning-ending double plays and Dylan Moore getting caught stealing after leading off the third inning with a single. The Mariners’ lone run charged to Bubic came in the seventh inning when France led off with a double. He was the first and only base runner to get into scoring position for Seattle on the night. He would later score on Abraham Toro’s ground ball to second base.