HOUSTON — Coming into the 2021 season, the decision seemed to fall somewhere between a slim possibility to unlikely based on the previous two seasons.
On July 2, a day after he tossed seven innings against a loaded Blue Jays lineup, allowing one run on five hits and striking out 10 batters to improve to 6-3 with a 3.18 ERA, the choice ranged from highly likely to almost definitely.
A week ago, even after he tossed seven shutout innings against the Astros in his best start of an abysmal second half of the season, the stretch of inconsistency seemed to move the outcome toward “why would they” to “there is no choice.”
But if there was any lingering apprehension within the Mariners’ front office on the pending decision concerning Yusei Kikuchi’s unique four-year club option and long-term future with the franchise, it should’ve been assuaged Monday evening, watching him uncork wayward fastballs for non-competitive misses and lifeless secondary pitches that were either clubbed or crushed.
With the Mariners feeling something more than hope about the American League wild-card race, Kikuchi delivered his worst outing since, well, his last start in Houston on Aug. 20, sending his team an almost-certain defeat before the second inning ended in what would eventually be a disappointing 11-2 drubbing by Houston.
“It was an ugly game,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Nobody’s happy about it. You can’t get too high. You can’t get too low. We lost the ballgame tonight. Coming in, we had 25 left to play. There was a pretty good chance we weren’t going to win all 25. The best thing to say about this one is we’ll come back at them tomorrow.”
The Mariners fell to 75-63 and remain three games behind the Red Sox (79-61), who lost a wild game to the Rays. The Blue Jays (74-62) moved into a tie with Seattle with an 8-0 shutout of the Yankees.
All of the good feeling from the Mariners’ five-game winning streak, the first two of which were victories over the Astros, including Kikuchi’s last start, and the three-game sweep over the Diamondbacks, dissipated as Kikuchi labored to simply throw strikes.
His pending struggles were evident when he walked Jose Altuve on four pitches to start his outing. He only escaped the first inning scoreless because he caught Altuve napping at second base and executed a deft pickoff throw to J.P. Crawford. It might have been his most accurate throw of the night.
The outing and any optimistic outcome ended in the second inning when Kikuchi walked Carlos Correa on four pitches, walked Yuli Gurriel on six pitches and walked Kyle Tucker on four pitches to load the bases.
A rare strike to Aledmys Diaz produced a hard ground ball to second baseman Abraham Toro. But the converted third baseman, perhaps in a malaise from the inactivity to start the inning, misplayed the sure double-play ball, allowing two runs to score.
If Toro makes that play, Kikuchi probably escapes the second with one or two runs allowed, but nothing about his pitches prior to that mistake pointed to a change in the outcome, perhaps just a prolonging of the agony.
It snowballed from there.
Jake Meyers deposited an 0-1 changeup left up in the strike zone off the signage high above the left-field fence for a three-run homer and a 5-0 lead. Kikuchi wouldn’t finish the inning, serving up a line-drive double to center to Yordan Alvarez with two outs.
Servais halted the carnage, bringing in left-hander Justus Sheffield to finish the second and give Seattle multiple innings to save the bullpen.
Kikuchi’s final line – 1 2/3 innings, six runs allowed (four earned) on three hits with four walks and no strikeouts. He threw 42 pitches with just 19 strikes, only nine strikes on his 23 fastballs. In his previous outing, he threw 44 strikes on 62 fastballs. There also was a drop in velocity by almost 2-3 mph on the fastball and noticeable lack of movement and life on all of his pitches.
“No problems physically,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “I just couldn’t get into a rhythm.”
While all pitchers deal with outings where their stuff, velocity or command is below normal, the unpredictable outings displayed by Kikuchi since he signed as a free agent before the 2019 season have been maddening for the Mariners. The only sort of consistency he’s displayed is a 15-start stretch from the start of this season to July 1.
Since then, he’s made 11 starts, posting a 1-5 record and a 6.32 ERA. He’s pitched only 52 2/3 innings in those 11 outings with only three starts of six innings or more. During that time, opposing hitters have a .293/.380/.553 slash line with 11 homers.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “In my previous outing, I thought I found it. There’s actually been a few outings where I’ve been able to finish strong, thinking that my next outing I’d be able to perform a lot better. But that just hasn’t necessarily been the case. To think that I’ve found it, but to not have it, is very frustrating.”
In 67 starts with Seattle, he has a 15-23 record with a 4.95 ERA. He has 29 quality starts of six-plus innings and three runs or fewer allowed and 33 outings of five innings or less.
It seems unfathomable for the Mariners to exercise the club option negotiated by agent Scott Boras for Kikuchi, which is not for one season but the 2022-2025 seasons with an annual salary of $16.5 million – a four-season total of $66 million. Seattle has three days after the World Series to make that decision.
If the Mariners decline to exercise the option, it becomes a one-year player option for 2022 at $13 million. Kikuchi has five days after the World Series to exercise that option and play for Seattle next season, or decline it and become a free agent.
Down 6-0 in a place that has been their personal house of horror for the past three seasons, the Mariners tried to scratch back into it. Toro lashed a two-run double into the left-field corner off Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. that made it 6-2 in the third.
But as been the case so often at Minute Maid, the score turned lopsided with missed plays and stranded base runners. The Astros tacked on two runs off Sheffield in the fifth and three off Sean Doolittle in the sixth to make it a rout.