The Mariners’ first dalliance with Major League Baseball’s new experiment for extra innings, using the international tiebreaker where a runner starts at second base for each team in a tie game after the ninth inning, wasn’t executed as planned or expected, yielding a suboptimal result in a 3-2 loss to the Oakland A’s on Saturday night at T-Mobile Park.
The A’s, who were introduced to the rule in an opening-day win over the Angels, made it look easy as Robbie Grossman hammered a ground-rule double to right-center off reliever Dan Altavilla, allowing pinch-runner Tony Kemp to score the go-ahead run.
The Mariners made it look complicated, failing to even move Shed Long Jr. off second base while facing Oakland closer Liam Hendriks. It featured a poor sacrifice bunt attempt by Tim Lopes, who bunted it in the air back to the pitcher with two strikes in the count, a pop out from Dylan Moore and a strikeout from J.P. Crawford.
“Our first go around with it,” manager Scott Servais said. “It has a much different feel to it. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of it or not, it’s the way the game is played right now. So, again, you’ve got to get big hits and execute, we just weren’t able to do it late in the game.”
But really this game was about the outing from starter Yusei Kikuchi, who delivered a seminal performance in his transition to MLB, tossing six shutout innings and looking dominant at times.
“Overall, one of the best outings he’s had with us,” Servais said.
From a statistical and result standpoint, Kikuchi has had better outings in his brief tenure with the Mariners. But there haven’t been nearly as many strong outings as the organization expected when he was signed to a four-year, $56 million contract going into the 2019 season.
Given his pedigree playing in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and his obvious ability, the Mariners expected there would be more outings like the complete-game shutout in Toronto, the 10 strikeouts in seven innings in Cleveland or the 7 2/3 innings and one run allowed on three hits at Yankee Stadium.
Instead, they got so many inconsistent outings where they were never quite sure which version of Kikuchi they would get. Any little thing — a bad bullpen session, a piece advice from someone else or just how he was feeling would lead to change in his mechanics and arm slot for the sake of change. It wasn’t good.
That’s why his second start of the 2020 season might be one of most important for the Mariners. Following an offseason spent trying to simplify his mechanics and shorten his arm path working with the Mariners pitching coaches and the people at Driveline Baseball in Kent, with the goal to generate consistent command, stable mid-90s velocity on his fastball and increased performance on all of his pitches, Kikuchi has not strayed from all that he learned and changed in preparation for 2020.
There have been minor reasons to change, whether it was the shutdown of baseball during spring training, the months of waiting and throwing for a season that never seemed like it would start, suboptimal showings in summer camp as he prepared for the shortened season and a less-than-stellar first start where his fastball velocity was good, but his command wasn’t.
But this outing against Oakland was his first payoff for that work and constant faith in the changes.
“I think conviction is the right word,” Servais said. “Very convicted tonight on all of this stuff, his pitches and where he’s trying to locate them. He does believe and he should believe in his stuff. It’s really good. It’s as good of left-handed stuff as you will see in the league right now. It can be that overpowering.”
Kikuchi pitched with an atypical aggressiveness for him over those six scoreless innings and looked in total control, allowing three hits with a walk and nine strikeouts. Of his 89 pitches, 58 were strikes. But 20 of those strikes were swings and misses, which is a good number for any pitcher.
“In Houston, I fell behind a lot and put myself in bad situations so this whole week I was working on being aggressive in the zone,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “Watching Taijuan [Walker] and Marco [Gonzales] go out there and pound the zone and be aggressive made me realize the importance.”
His reward for such an outing? A no-decision and some towel waving and standing ovations from his fellow starting pitchers, who were seated by the home dugout, as a consolation.
Lefty Nick Margevicius was handed a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning, and he couldn’t hold it. He gave up a one-out double to Mark Canha, and with two outs, he left two fastballs down the middle of the plate to Chad Pinder, who fouled off the first one and deposited the second one in the seats in right-center to tie the game.
Seattle’s two runs came in the third inning off A’s starter Mike Fiers. With two outs, J.P. Crawford and Austin Nola each singled and Kyle Lewis worked a walk to load the bases for Kyle Seager, who dumped a single into center field to score two runs.
The inning ended prematurely when Lewis was thrown out at third on the play. Notoriously a slow starter in every season, struggling with the early months of the season where the temps are chilly, Seager is off to a hot start in 2020 with the summer temperatures above 70. He’s reached base in eight of the nine games while his 10 RBI lead the team.
The Mariners should have broke the 2-2 tie in the ninth and avoided extra innings. They loaded the bases with one out against Joakim Soria. But the veteran right-hander struck out Jose Marmolejos and Long to force extra innings.
“Part of what we’re going through this year is giving the guys those opportunities in the ninth inning when the game’s on the line and learning from it,” Servais said. “You’re not always going to come through, but part of it is how do you slow yourself down and get good pitches to hit.”
As for the 10th-inning strategy Servais explained the process:
“You’re looking personnel and where you’re at in the lineup. My feeling going into it was, give Timmy a strike and see if he can get on a fastball. Hendriks is very aggressive with his fastball. He located once, so we got down on the count at that point. Then we tried to move the runner along and extend the game. We weren’t able to do it. A lot of it depends on personnel — who was in the box for us and who was on the mound for them and what do you think might happen there. You still have to execute it. It didn’t work out in our favor. It’s one of those things that we’ll see how it goes as we go along. It is so driven, for me anyway, on the personnel in the situation.”