TORONTO — “They always get better!”
The once common cry of local outrage grew to a fan cliché and has now morphed into a bit of a sarcastic meme.
To be fair, empirical data shows that players don’t always get better when they leave the Mariners. Some players do get better (Chris Taylor), some get worse (Robinson Cano) and some remain basically the same player they were in Seattle — terrific (Nelson Cruz), terrible (Chone Figgins) or tradable (too many to list).
That brings us to the curious case of Yusei Kikuchi. Is he better? Is he worse? Or is he the same talented but frustratingly inconsistent pitcher that tantalized and tormented the Mariners and their fans over the previous three seasons.
On Monday night, the “good” version of Kikuchi, which didn’t appear quite enough during his tenure the Mariners, showed up for his new team to torture his old team because, well, of course it did.
In a performance similar to those early outings of 2021 that helped him earn a spot on the American League All-Star team and others sprinkled into the previous two seasons that provided unmet hope, Kikuchi delivered his best outing of the 2022 season, leading the Blue Jays to a relatively easy 6-2 win.
Kikuchi tossed six shutout innings, allowing just one hit — a double to Jesse Winker in the fifth inning — while walking three batters and striking out six.
But it was clear from the taciturn responses from manager Scott Servais when it came to Kikuchi that he was less than thrilled about the performance of his offense.
“We’ve seen Yusei a lot, and he got good results,” Servais said.
Asked about Kikuchi working back into counts after first-pitch misses, Servais replied: “I don’t know. He got good results.”
Was Kikuchi different from last season?
“No,” Servais said, taking a long pause and then adding, “He was an All-Star last year. He’s a good pitcher. He’s got good stuff. He had a good night tonight.”
With Servais not wanting to expound more, the question of his hitters’ approach against Kikuchi did get something more.
“He threw strikes when he needed to throw strikes,” Servais said. “He’s got good stuff. There’s never been a question with that. We just couldn’t get much pressure or get much going against him.”
That last part was the key failure. The Mariners put minimal to no pressure on Kikuchi. Pitching with rhythm and pace and utilizing a recently revamped slider/cutter that he debuted in his previous outing, Kikuchi didn’t allow a hit through the first four innings. The only batter to reach base over that span was a walk to Ty France in the second at-bat of the game.
Over his three seasons and 70 starts with the Mariners, even when he was pitching at his best, Kikuchi was susceptible to struggles from the pressure of pitching with runners on base and would give up an inning of three runs or more. He would slow games to a halt, struggling to find a rhythm, lulling his defense behind him to sleep and pitching with the passive “perfect-pitch” mindset instead of trusting his stuff. It would lead him to falling behind to 2-0 and 3-1 counts and being forced back into the strike zone where hitters would feast on fastballs.
During his time with Seattle, opposing batters posted a .270/.342/.450 slash line including 36 doubles, six triples, 18 homers and 59 walks in 639 plate appearances with runners on base.
With a runner on base, the Mariners went 0 for 7 with a walk vs. Kikuchi.
His departure from the Mariners wasn’t met with much consternation. Signed to a four-year, $56 million contract before the 2019 season, Seattle declined a four-year club option of $66 million, turning the fourth year into a $13 million player option. Searching for a new start, Kikuchi declined the option and $13 million guaranteed, opting for free agency.
In 70 starts over three seasons, including the shortened 2020 season, he posted a 15-24 record with a 4.97 ERA. In 365 2/3 innings pitched, he allowed 66 homers, struck out 132 batters and walked 66.
Shortly after the lockout ended, he signed a three-year, $36 million deal with Toronto to be the fifth starter in the rotation.
Winker doubled to start the fifth inning but never moved from second base. Eugenio Suarez popped out in foul territory and Luis Torrens worked a walk, but Kikuchi came back to strike out Steven Souza Jr. and got Dylan Moore to line out to left to end the threat.
Kikuchi worked a scoreless sixth, issuing another walk to France, to end his outing with 90 pitches and 55 strikes. He wasn’t completely efficient with only nine first-pitch strikes to 22 batters. But on those 13 1-0 counts, he came back with a strike nine times. He got 11 swing-and-misses and 15 called strikes in the outing.
Seattle starter Chris Flexen gave the Mariners a decent outing, working 5 1/3 innings and allowing three runs on six hits with two walks and seven strikeouts.
The Blue Jays grabbed an early 2-0 lead with solo homers off Flexen from Bo Bichette in the first inning and Matt Chapman in the second inning.
The third run allowed came in the sixth after Flexen exited the game following his second walk of the inning. Right-hander Penn Murfee gave up a two-out single to Raimel Tapia that made it 3-0.
In Flexen’s seven starts this season, the Mariners have scored a total of seven runs with four of those runs coming April 22 against the Royals. They’ve been shut out four times and scored one run and two runs in the other two outings.
“We’ve got to do more to help him out a little bit,” Servais said.
The Mariners’ first run came in the seventh inning against Kikuchi’s replacement — right-hander Trevor Richards.
With one out, Suarez sent a Richards fastball over the wall in left field for a solo homer. It was the 200th homer in Suarez’s career. He is the 23rd active player in baseball to reach 200 home runs.
The Mariners loaded the bases against Richards as Torrens and pinch-hitter Mike Ford worked walks and pinch-hitter Adam Frazier singled to right. Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo went to veteran right-hander Yimi Garcia to clean up the mess. Garcia got Abraham Toro to hit a weak fly ball to shallow right field that the less-than-speedy Torrens couldn’t tag up on and jammed France on a sinker, producing a rally-ending ground out to first base.
The Mariners bullpen allowed the game to get out of reach. Wyatt Mills gave up a two-run single to squatty pinch-hitter Alejandro Kirk in the seventh and Roenis Elias, who was activated for Monday’s game, allowed an RBI single to Bichette in the eighth inning.
Seattle scored its second run in the ninth inning on Frazier’s RBI single off Ross Stripling.