Instead of a pitching duel, it became a pitching lesson.
The veteran “role model” showing the rookie what it takes to have consistent success at baseball’s highest level, offering a clinic in composure and command. The rookie showing that he still is an unfinished product when it comes to navigating the difficulties of a different style of baseball.
While they hail from the same homeland — something that made Tuesday night’s game between a World Series contender and a team that hasn’t thought about the postseason since May at least interesting — the juxtaposition between the two men as MLB pitchers couldn’t have been more obvious in the Yankees’ 7-0 victory over the Mariners.
It was the eighth time Seattle has been shut out this season. The team’s streak of four straight series wins also ended with the defeat.
The starting-pitching matchup between veteran right-hander Masahiro Tanaka and rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi offered a level of intrigue, particularly back home in their native Japan where a matchup of Japanese pitchers in Major League Baseball is a rare treat to savor and was broadcast nationwide.
But there wasn’t much similar about their performances on the evening or the season.
Tanaka delivered a stellar outing, pitching seven shutout innings, allowing three hits with a walk and seven strikeouts to improve to 10-7. He didn’t allow a hit until Kyle Seager led off the fifth inning with a double to right field.
Tanaka has now won 10 games or more in each of his six seasons since coming to MLB from Japan. He also continued his dominance over the Mariners, improving to 8-0 with a 2.02 ERA with 75 strikeouts and eight walks in 10 starts vs. Seattle.
“He was really good,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s a veteran guy who has been through the wars and he knows what he’s doing and has a really good plan. He can make pitches and he’s never going to give in to you. It was a learning experience for a bunch of our young hitters. You talk about it pregame and what the approach is going to be when you go out there. And then you start living it in real time. It gets a little fast.”
What did those young hitters learn?
“He doesn’t throw many fastballs for strikes, that’s what he doesn’t do,” Servais said. “And when you have young hitters and you are an aggressive team like we are, we get in those fastball counts and he has the ability to take a little off or go to the slider or the splitfinger. He’s got a ton of experience and he knows how to pitch.”
Meanwhile, Kikuchi, though he didn’t need one, was given a harsh reminder that he was facing one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball in the first two batters of the game. He allowed a laser of a single to D.J. LeMahieu to start the game and then inexplicably left a first-pitch, 91 mph fastball down the middle of the plate to the massive human that is Aaron Judge. That awful mistake pitch was redirected by a vicious swing and sent off the batter’s eye beyond the center-field wall. MLB Statcast measured the prodigious blast at 462 feet with a 114 mph exit velocity.
“He’s a really aggressive hitter and the pitch called was a high fastball, but I kind of missed my location,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak.
Coming off a previous start on Aug. 18 where he tossed a shutout in just 96 pitches vs. the Blue Jays, Kikuchi needed 29 pitches to get out of the first inning. To his credit, he didn’t allow another run to score that inning.
After a scoreless second inning, Kikuchi found more trouble in the third. And his biggest weakness – the long ball – hurt him again. He gave up back-to-back singles to Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez to start the inning. After a brief mound visit from pitching coach Paul Davis and interpreter Justin Novak, Kikuchi left an elevated 90 mph fastball just low enough for Brett Gardner to muscle barely over the wall in right field for a three-run homer and a 5-0 lead.
“I was trying to get inside and I made a mistake,” Kikuchi said.
Kikuchi would pitch just one more inning, allowing two more runners in the fourth and needing an inning-ending double play to avoid allowing another run. Admittedly, he tried to pick at the corners out, trying to be careful with the power bats.
“The first two runs early really hurt and I think I tried to be a little too fine and trying to hit the edges,” Kikuchi said. “I got into some bad counts after that.”
His night was finished after four innings, allowing five runs on eight hits with three walks and just one strikeout to fall to 5-9, while his ERA grew to 5.36. Of his 95 pitches thrown, 10 were swinging strikes and 16 were fouled off. He was facing a slightly more established level of hitter compared to the Blue Jays. He had success against the Yankees in May, pitching 7 2/3 innings, allowing one run on three hits a walk and three strikeouts. That lineup didn’t have Judge, Gardner or Sanchez.
“They are a different Yankees from the last time,” he said. “They took advantage of my mistakes.”
Kikuchi also didn’t use his curveball as much, favoring his changeup, which he felt was working well.
“Yusei was not as sharp,” Servais said. “It was the command of his pitches. I know I talk about it all the time and sound like a broken record. But that’s what it is all about with him. The last time he pitched against the Yankees he had a really good curveball. He didn’t quite have it tonight.”
The Mariners had hoped that skipping his scheduled start last Friday and getting him a few extra days’ rest as part of a throwing program to keep him healthy and help him adapt might lead to success against the Yankees. But instead it led to more runs off homers. Kikuchi has allowed 33 homers, which is near the top of MLB. Former Mariner Mike Leake came into Tuesday leading all of baseball with 34 homers allowed.
“This is a really good hitting ball club,” Servais said. “There’s a reason they hit hit a lot of home runs, they are scoring runs and they have the record they have.”
The Yankees tacked on a run off of reliever Reggie McClain in the fifth inning on a fielder’s choice. Lefty reliever Taylor Guilbeau had a few issues in the ninth, loading the bases and walking in a run that made it 7-0.