The big question Thursday night at T-Mobile Park was: What version of Yusei Kikuchi would the Mariners get against the Kansas City Royals?
Would he be the pitcher he was for most of the first half of the season, when he was the Mariners’ top starter and named an All-Star? Or the pitcher who often has struggled since the break, including allowing 10 earned runs over seven innings in his previous two starts?
They got Kikuchi at his finest through five innings, and Kikuchi at his worst during a disastrous sixth inning when the Royals overcame a four-run deficit, then went on to a 6-4 win over the Mariners.
“It’s a disappointing way to start the homestand, but we’ll get after it tomorrow,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said after the first of the four-game series.
With Boston winning, Seattle (69-59) is 3 1/2 games behind the Red Sox for the second American League wild-card berth.
It was impossible to see the sixth-inning implosion coming, with Kikuchi so dominant through five shutout innings, allowing just one hit on 56 pitches.
The Mariners had just scored three runs in the fifth inning — on Kyle Seager’s career-high-tying 30th homer of the season and Jake Fraley’s two-run blast — to stake Kikuchi to a 4-0 lead.
But Kikuchi was unable to record an out in the sixth. After two straight singles, a double and a walk to open the inning, Kikuchi was pulled, having allowed a run and leaving the bases loaded with no outs.
They weren’t loaded for long.
Royals slugger Salvador Perez greeted reliever Joe Smith with a drive into the left-field seats on a 2-0 pitch, and the Royals suddenly were in the lead at 5-4. And they kept it.
Servais said he thought Kikuchi pitched better than he had recently but not as well as he had pitched earlier in the season, even during the first five innings.
“It got away pretty quickly from him,” Servais said of Kikuchi in the sixth inning. “The (Royals) can do those things. They are playing well, and they are aggressive.”
Servais said he took out Kikuchi and put in Smith “because their best hitter is coming to the plate with the bases loaded in the sixth inning of the ballgame.”
“So I put out what I thought was our best pitcher into the game at that point. Yusei did a nice job to get us to that point, but it was not a matchup, I thought, that was very favorable for us at the time. … I brought Joe Smith in, he made a mistake, and (Perez) hit a homer. That happens.”
The Mariners opened the scoring with a run in the first inning when Fraley walked on four pitches with bases loaded and two outs.
The Mariners also were left to wonder what might have been. Mitch Haniger was thrown out at home for the second out of the inning while trying to score on Seager’s double.
And after Fraley’s four-pitch walk, Royals starter Brad Keller fell behind 3-0 to Jarred Kelenic. But Keller battled back and on his 35th pitch of the inning, struck Kelenic out looking to limit the damage to just a run.
Keller got into trouble again in the fourth inning, putting runners on first and third with one out. But Cal Raleigh popped up, and after a walk to Jake Bauer to load the bases, J.P. Crawford hit a soft liner that Kansas City shortstop Nicky Lopez was able to track down.
Keller could not escape Seager’s mighty rip in the fifth, as he hit a moonshot 413 feet into the right-center seats to give the Mariners a 2-0 lead.
That was the final pitch of the night for Keller, who left with right shoulder discomfort. Seattle doubled its lead soon after on Fraley’s homer off reliever Joel Payamps.
That lead looked safe with the way Kikuchi was pitching, but it wasn’t.
Seattle had a great opportunity in the bottom of the sixth when Raleigh led off with a double, and Luis Torrens hit a pinch-hit single to put runners on first and third with no outs. But Royals reliever Richard Lovelady struck out Crawford and Haniger, then got Seager to ground out.
The Royals added an unearned run in the seventh, and left fielder Andrew Benintendi took a homer away from Kelenic in the eighth inning, leaping above the wall in left field to catch the ball.
It was that kind of ending for the Mariners after such a great start, not that Seattle didn’t have chances.
“I thought we had a lot of chances to put more runs on the board, and it wasn’t our night as far as situational hitting,” Servais said. “It happens sometimes, but you’ve got to take advantage of those situations.”