The Mariners' new pitcher is still getting used to the different ball in MLB compared to Japan, not to mention the unseasonably cold and rainy weather in Arizona, but sources say he'll likely make his spring debut Monday.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Yusei Kikuchi didn’t have to worry about the dry, warm air of Arizona causing the baseball to feel slippery with its smaller seams and slicker cover.
No, there was plenty of moisture in the air, on the ground and falling onto his uniform as he threw his second live batting practice session in what has been an unseasonably cold spring.
With temperatures in the 40s, a light mist falling and a little breeze, you could see Kikuchi’s breath when he wasn’t blowing into his hand to keep it warm. Despite an all-day downpour saturating the area Thursday, the Mariners were able to get Kikuchi on a main field to face hitters for the second time this spring.
“It was really cold,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak.
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But he has pitched in similar conditions in Japan in his career. The early season games can be similar to April games in Seattle.
“It doesn’t really affect me,” he said. “When you’re out there, your body just becomes warm.”
The weather was actually a benefit for him.
“The rain helped me with the baseball,” he said. “Arizona is really dry, so a little humidity helped and I felt really good today.”
Kikuchi has struggled with the feel of the ball since getting to Arizona. The ball used by Major League Baseball has slightly lower seams and a slicker cover compared to the ball he used in Nippon Professional Baseball. He’s slowly getting used to the ball. But the air in Arizona usually doesn’t help the situation. He’s tried licking his fingers, using pine tar and blowing on his hand to get a better grip with some moisture.
“He’s not the only guy that has an issue,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Any guys that have come out of spring trainings in Florida notice the difference. There’s no humidity here so it’s tougher to get a little grip on the ball, get a feel for it. And, of course, with Yusei, he’s making a little adjustment from the ball in the NPB versus what we use here. There is a difference, and it takes a little while to get used to. It’s something he’s working through. It’s one of the reasons we want to give him a couple of lives (live batting practices) and kind of give it time. Allow him the opportunity to make adjustments on what’s going to work for him.”
Kikuchi pitched two “innings” against Dee Gordon, Kris Negron and Ryon Healy, throwing a total of 27 pitches.
“Today I felt I was throwing all my pitches really well,” he said. “The next step is getting into the game and seeing how those pitches work.”
Servais was pleased.
“Kikuchi’s live BP was really good today,” he said. “I thought he was sharp and threw a lot of strikes with a good breaking ball. We’ll give him a couple of days off. He’ll start a game early next week.”
Healy came away impressed with his new teammate.
“I didn’t know much about him,” Healy said. “I was just asking the general concept of him before I stepped in the box. I don’t know if I want to give the scouting report to you guys and have the other teams hear it. But it’s a good fastball with good life on it, he threw a couple of variations of the curveball to me. He threw one for a strike that was a little firmer or sharper, breaking late. Then he threw one to me with two strikes that was a little slower breaking but with similar depth. It was sharp out of his hand and you have some funky timing with his double leg kick.”
Healy also noticed the way Kikuchi hides the ball. A few days ago, he saw a slow-motion video posted by the Mariners on Instagram of Kikuchi from behind and saw how he does it.
“He drops the ball out of his glove and puts it on his back quad and it just kind of rides all the way up his body so it’s hidden the whole time,” Healy said. “Out of his hand it also has some angle. He threw me two fastballs that were just dotted on the outsider corner that you don’t really see or you give up on them because you think they are away.”
The Mariners haven’t announced when Kikuchi will start his first Cactus League game. Servais indicated it likely would be Monday against the Reds at Peoria Stadium. The expectation is that Kikuchi will start Game No. 2 of the season in Tokyo against the A’s.
Dings and dents
Left-hander Justus Sheffield is dealing with a small blister on his pitching hand. The Mariners don’t want it to get worse, so they pushed him back in his throwing schedule. Sheffield threw a bullpen session Friday morning. He is scheduled to pitch Sunday against the Rockies in Scottsdale.
“We just wanted to give it a couple days to let it calm down,” Servais said. “He was ready to go yesterday and could certainly pitch, but where we’re at in spring, just give it some time.”
Outfielder Kyle Lewis is still dealing with a swollen pinkie finger on his right hand after dislocating it two days ago on a headfirst slide into second.
“It’s still a little swollen,” he said. “There’s a chance maybe he could swing the bat a little bit off the tee in the cage. It’s nothing serious. Just one of those things that happen. You jam your pinkie. We’ve probably all done it, get hit by a basketball, slide into a base wrong, it’s going to be sore for a couple of days.”
Right-handers Anthony Swarzak and Max Povse, who are both dealing with shoulder inflammation, are moving closer to throwing off the mound. Povse could throw a bullpen session in the next few days while Swarzak is a day or two behind that.