Others might have tried to do as much, but it’s impossible to believe that any Mariners pitcher put in more work during baseball’s coronavirus shutdown than Yusei Kikuchi.
Given his background of playing in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, Kikuchi prefers to throw on flat ground and off the mound more than typical professional pitchers in the United States. He would throw every day if the Mariners let him.
So when spring training and the 2020 season were put on hold due to the pandemic, Kikuchi didn’t kick back and start binge-watching Netflix. From his home in Phoenix he continued to run, lift weights and throw every day. That included three bullpen sessions per week and even a pair of live batting-practice sessions at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria.
Kikuchi found that all the work didn’t replicate the energy, emotion and intensity of live games, even intrasquad games against your teammates.
Making his first intrasquad start of “Summer Camp” amid Tuesday’s afternoon sunshine at T-Mobile Park, Kikuchi delivered a suboptimal outing. Plagued by wandering fastball command and constantly behind in counts, he allowed four runs on four hits with four walks and four strikeouts. It was the sort of pitch inefficiency that happened too often last season, when he was 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA in 32 starts.
“My bullpens have been really solid lately,” he said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “But I really felt the difference (of) actually pitching in a game.”
What was the biggest difference?
“Obviously there was a lot more stuff going on, different signs, runners on base and a different tempo,” he said. “I felt like I lost my balance in my mechanics today in the game.”
When Kikuchi mentions mechanics, the Mariners are concerned he will tinker and/or change them. It’s something he did to his detriment last season.
During the offseason, Kikuchi went to DriveLine Baseball in Kent and, with the Mariners’ approval and input, worked on simplifying his mechanics and arm path. Even with the results Tuesday, he isn’t going to change them like he might have last season.
“They are just minor tweaks and little minor adjustments,” Kikuchi said.
With opening day in Houston looming on July 24, he will get one more start before making his regular-season turn in the rotation over that weekend.
“I only have one more before it’s go time,” he said. “I just need to make my proper adjustments and get ready for this next outing. The main thing is fastball command and throwing a good, firm fastball. I felt off balance with my timing on my fastball. With a better fastball and better command, the offspeed pitches will be more effective.”
Fan participation in 2020
Even though fans can’t attend Mariners games at T-Mobile Park during the coronavirus-shortened season, they can make their presence felt while watching games on television.
The team announced the creation of the “Mariners Seat Fleet” and “Virtual Cheers” programs, in which fans can be part of the game experience.
The Seat Fleet is similar to what teams are doing in the Korean Baseball Organization games — fans can have cardboard cutouts of themselves put into the stands of games. For $30, fans can submit photos of themselves that will be turned into life-size cutouts. From the news release: “the images will be placed in seats around the ballpark to bring a little ambiance to the game experience. If a Seat Fleet image ‘catches’ a foul ball, the baseball will be mailed to the fan.”
The Mariners will donate a portion of those proceeds to nonprofit organizations supporting COVID-19 relief efforts. The $30 seems economical considering the Dodgers are charging $299 for cutouts in the “Pavilion Home Run Seats” and $149 for cutouts in the field and loge sections of Dodger Stadium. They, too, are donating the proceeds to charity — the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation.
The Seat Fleet cutouts will be placed in the lower level of the T-Mobile Park seating bowl. If multiple images are submitted on the same order, such as a couple or family, they will be grouped together.
For those people who have comedic thoughts about the cutouts, all images will be screened, and any that portray obscene, offensive, political or commercial content will be discarded.
Information about the best way to take the photos and upload them can be found at Mariners.com/SeatFleet.
The virtual cheers program is where fans can upload short videos of themselves clapping, cheering, chanting and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Those videos will be either be played on the massive MarinersVision screen and over the sound system inside T-Mobile Park, or on the ROOT Sports game broadcasts and Mariners social-media channels. Information: Mariners.com/Cheer.
*** The Mariners placed right-handed pitcher Yoshihisa Hirano on the injured list.
Because no medical reason was given for Hirano’s absence, and the Mariners’ note that he has yet to appear in a Summer Camp workout, it means the issue is related to COVID-19. There is no minimum or maximum time limit for a player on the COVID-19 Injured List.
Hirano, 35, posted a 5-5 record with a save and a 4.75 ERA (28 ER, 53.0 IP) with 22 walks and 61 strikeouts over 62 relief appearances for Arizona last season. He was expected to provide a veteran bullpen presence.
*** Tom Murphy took a foul ball off the inside of his leg on a swing from Evan White while behind the plate in the second inning of Tuesday’s intrasquad game. The impact of the ball put Murphy face down on the ground in agony. A scream of pain and another of frustration echoed throughout the empty stadium as he tried to walk off the hurt.
Murphy remained in the game and finished the inning. But he was replaced by Brian O’Keefe in the third inning.