ANAHEIM, Calif. – Regardless if you believe in the value of the pitcher win as a legitimate metric, there is still meaning in it, specifically for the guy on the mound starting a game.
Even after the most analytically inclined starting pitcher spouts off all the reasons why the pitching win isn’t a useful determinant of his or others pitching success, he can still tell you when, where and what happened when he got his first win in Major League Baseball. It’s a rite for any starting pitcher and an indelible memory for their career.
For Yusei Kikuchi, that moment should have come sooner in his first season with the Mariners. Given how well he pitched in his first handful of starts, the rookie left-hander was more than deserving of a win. But the Mariners’ shaky bullpen and shoddy defense didn’t allow it to happen.
So on a night when it was a fight just to get through the five required innings to figure in the decision, it was that same bullpen that made sure he achieved that memorable moment.
Four relievers combined to work the final four innings to secure a 6-5 victory for Seattle and Kikuchi’s first big-league win.
“It was nice to get him that first win,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s obviously pitched better in some of his other games early in the season and we weren’t able to hold the lead. But tonight we did.”
Kikuchi’s first MLB win came in his sixth start of the season. It’s likely his second win won’t take another six starts.
“First and foremost, it’s kind of a weight off my shoulders,” he said through interpreter Justin Novak.
Much has been expected of Kikuchi since he signed with the Mariners this offseason as the top free agent from Japan. But the expectations he placed on himself and wanting to find success for his team, his home country and his recently passed father were greater. The pressure on him is apparent even though he tries his best to not let it dominate him.
“To be honest, it was just in the back of my mind and wanting to get it out of the way,” he said. “Now that it’s out of the way, there’s a bunch of things I need to improve on and good things I need to do moving forward.”
Kikuchi’s first MLB win came with his first postgame beer shower to celebrate the achievement. That’s also part of the MLB experience.
“It was really fun,” he said. “I’ve seen a bunch of players take those showers already and it was colder than I thought it was going to be. I’m really cold right now.”
Do they do that in Japan?
“No,” he said laughing.
Kikuchi pitched five innings, allowing four runs on a whopping 10 hits with two walks and three strikeouts.
“I’ve learned a lot in these last six starts and they’ve had some ups and downs,” he said. “But today wasn’t my best start out there, but I was happy I was able to limit them to four runs and grind out the start.”
He struggled with command of his curveball and slider as putaway pitches and resorted to throwing fastball after fastball.
“They were on him,” Servais said. “They hit some balls hard. He really didn’t have the back and forth pitch. The curveball is the pitch that slows hitters down a bit and he was having a hard time landing that. They were on his fastball. He’s going to have to continue make adjustments. The more these teams see him. They study. They look at the video. They’ll know how he’s coming after them. He’s learning.”
Kikuchi never had an inning without a base runner. But he did work the first two inning scoreless, trying to take advantage of the 2-0 lead provided by teammates.
The Mariners’ offense was once again powered by the long ball. Seattle smashed four solo homers in the game to provide the bulk of the offense. The four homers pushed Seattle’s major-league-leading total to 53 in 24 games. It was the fourth game game with four homers or more. The Mariners have homered in all 12 of their road games. It puts them on pace to hit 358 homers this season, which is a preposterous total.
Or is it?
Mitch Haniger started the nightly barrage of bombs immediately, leading off the game with his sixth homer of the season. Haniger pulled a 0-2 sinker from Trevor Cahill down the left-field line just inside of the foul pole. The Angels asked for a review which confirmed the homer.
Later in the inning, Daniel Vogelbach yanked a solo homer into the right-field seats for a 2-0 lead. It was his second homer of the season off Cahill. Vogelbach hit his first of the season off Cahill at T-Mobile Park on April 2, igniting his hot streak of hitting, homers and walks. Including that game, he’s hit four doubles, eight homers, driven in 14 runs and drawn 13 walks over his last 14 games.
The Angels got a run back in the third inning. Andrelton Simmons, who doesn’t seem to make outs of late, reached on an infield single and scored from first on Albert Pujols’ double into the left-field corner that Domingo Santana had trouble corralling immediately.
Seattle gave Kikuchi some cushion in the top of the fourth and for once, it wasn’t by a home run. With two outs and the bases loaded, Dee Gordon immediately fell behind 0-2 against Cahill. But on third pitch of the at-bat, he punched a line drive just inside the third-base bag to score a pair of runs.
“I will take the RBIs,” Gordon said. “More importantly, I’m glad Yusei got his first win and I was able to contribute.”
It was Gordon’s 1,000th career hit and it gave Seattle a 4-1 lead.
“Honestly, given 2012 and 2013, I didn’t think I’d ever make it here,” Gordon said. “It wasn’t going well for me. I was having a hard time staying up (in the big leagues) and just to be able do this is pretty awesome.”
But it was an ordeal for Kikuchi to get through his last two innings of work. He gave up a run in the fourth while letting six batters to come to the plate. He allowed two more runs in the fifth and was laboring to finish the inning. He was seemingly down to his last batter when he got Peter Bourjos to ground out to end the inning.
The Mariners tacked on two more runs on solo blasts from Edwin Encarnacion and Domingo Santana, which proved important.
With Brandon Brennan and Roenis Elias – two of the Mariners best relievers — unavailable due to usage, Servais had to find other options to cover the innings.
Hard-throwing right-hander Connor Sadzeck worked a 1-2-3 sixth inning that included impressive swinging strikeouts of Zack Cozart and Mike Trout.
Sadzeck got two outs in the seventh inning, but gave up a double and a single. Lefty Zac Rosscup cleaned up the situation, walking Goodwin but striking out Bourjos to end the inning.
Right-hander Cory Gearrin, who struggled early in the season with his command, pitched a scoreless eighth, aided by a 4-6-3 double play to erase a leadoff single and swinging strikeout of Trout.
Veteran right-hander Anthony Swarzak made the ninth a little interesting, giving up solo homer to Pujols. But he came back to retire the final two batters to notch his third save of the season.