TORONTO — Yusei Kikuchi’s last outing left his manager openly frustrated and publicly critical, and left him searching for answers to questions he’d never been asked before in his professional career.
His first season in the big leagues had started with promise and early success, but was slowly spiraling into a mess of unproductive starts, homers allowed and expectations left unfulfilled.
Five days after his failures in Detroit that forced a sitdown with manager Scott Servais to discuss what it was he is trying to do on the mound and who he hoped to be at baseball’s highest level, Kikuchi responded with his best start of the 2019 season.
Kikuchi tossed his first shutout in Major League Baseball in Seattle’s 7-0 victory Sunday over the Blue Jays. Over his nine scoreless innings, he allowed just two hits with a walk and eight strikeouts.
“Outstanding,” Servais said. “Heck of an outing. If you throw a complete game anywhere at any time in the big leagues and do it in less than 100 pitches, it really doesn’t get any better than that. I’m really happy for him.”
Kikuchi needed only 96 pitches to complete his gem, featuring 12 swinging strikes, including five on his riding fastball. He’d thrown seven shutouts and 15 complete games in his career in Japan, but never one in less than 100 pitches.
“I was really happy able to do that here,” he said through interpreter Justin Novak. “Being a bullpen day yesterday for the team, I feel like I was able to step up.”
In baseball parlance, it’s called a “Maddux” in honor of Greg Maddux. Kikuchi, a diehard fan of all things baseball, sheepishly admitted he didn’t know that. But it’s likely he won’t forget that nugget of information.
“Yusei is a very talented pitcher, and we know with the ability to have outings like this,” Servais said. “There’ll be rough ones along the way, like anybody has, but I’m really happy with him and proud of him. It’s really tough when you’re going through a season like this. He’s probably struggled more this year than he has in recent years, but he continues to try to learn from it and get better.”
Last week, for the first time this season, Servais was openly critical of the rookie left-hander, saying he was disappointed in what he felt was a regression-type start in Detroit where Kikuchi allowed five runs on nine hits in 3 1/3 innings. Up that point, he’d been protective of Kikuchi, understanding the transition he was trying to make to playing at baseball’s highest level.
But with so much invested in Kikuchi and his performance trending in the wrong direction — 1-7 with a 7.50 ERA in his past 14 starts — Servais met with Kikuchi a day after the disaster in Detroit to discuss the process of making adjustments and what is expected of him as big-league pitcher. It wasn’t so much a scolding or a lecture, but just a refresh, reset and a reminder. The current process wasn’t working and they both knew change was needed. Both men felt it was a productive meeting even before Kikuchi stepped on the Rogers Centre mound Sunday.
“I wanted him to free up things and throw the ball,” Servais said before the game. “He’s in a really good frame of mind. We had some good talks and he had a good bullpen the other day. I’m excited to see what he has today.”
From the first pitch of the game, Kikuchi looked free and easy with his delivery. In past outings he’d been deliberate and so conscious of his mechanics to the point of being awkward.
“I feel like I’ve been tense since I came over here,” he said. “I went back and watched some video. Today I really focused on really relaxing and loosening up when I was out there pitching.”
After giving up some hard contact in the second and third innings, Kikuchi actually got stronger as the game wore on. His fastball bumped up from 91 mph to 94-95 mph and he didn’t allow a hit after the fourth inning. The only baserunner from the fifth through the ninth was his one walk.
“He just kept pounding the strike zone,” Servais said. “When he’s at his best, he’s throwing strike one and getting ahead in the count.”
It was the eighth time Tom Murphy caught Kikuchi this season and the duo worked well. Kikuchi said he never shook off a sign from Murphy. It’s logical to assume Murphy will be catching Kikuchi in his next start, which will be Friday against the Blue Jays against T-Mobile Park.
“It all started with his fastball,” Murphy said. “He was consistently right at the top of the strike zone. To be able to command that consistently, every hitter in here will tell you you have to cover a lot of ground after that. It set the tone for everything. It was a good mix off that fastball. He was able to throw three pitches in the strike zone at any time.”
Kikuchi went back to basics. He scrapped his double leg kick and pitched as if there was a runner on base at all times, despite allowing just three hitters to reach base. The delivery was quick and clean.
“I kept it as simple as I could,” he said. “I’ve probably been overthinking these last couple of starts. I kept it simple and it started to click from the fourth inning on.”
He also worked quickly on the advice of Marco Gonzales and Wade LeBlanc.
“Tempo and pace,” he said. “They told me if I could have that, I’d be able to find my old and best stuff.”
Will it stay for the final five weeks of the season?
“I felt like I found something today,” he said. “Tomorrow is another day, so I need to go out and make sure I don’t forget it and get back after it day after day and make sure I finish the season strong.”
The hottest hitter in a Mariners uniform gave his team a quick 1-0 lead in the second inning. Kyle Seager continued his torrid stretch of production and power with a solo homer to right field off Blue Jays opener Wilmer Font.
Seager’s 16th homer of the season extended his hitting streak to 12 games. He has hits in 22 of his past 23 games, including 10 home runs.
Seattle pushed the lead to 4-0, scoring three runs in the fourth behind the next two hottest hitters on the team behind Seager. Austin Nola led off with a homer to right field that made it 2-0. With two outs, Murphy crushed a two-run homer to left field to make it 4-0. Murphy’s 13th homer of the season was his third in his past two games.
Keon Broxton, who was playing in place of the benched Mallex Smith, hit a solo homer in the seventh to make it 6-0. Broxton has three RBI in the two games he’s played in place of Smith.
Seattle tacked on two more runs in the ninth on an RBI-double from Dylan Moore and a run-scoring single from Tim Lopes.