Manager Scott Servais wasn’t trying to be mean when asked if the Yusei Kikuchi of the past two seasons could have worked out of the two-inning mess that was the beginning of his start vs. Detroit on Monday night.
“No chance,” he said.
Even Kikuchi admitted as much.
“I feel like last year if something similar would have happened, I wouldn’t have been able to make the proper adjustments that I did today and as quick as I did today,” he said through interpreter Kevin Ando.
With the Mariners bullpen heavily worked from a four-game series with Cleveland, including a bullpen start, Kikuchi needed to give Seattle at least six innings. After giving up three runs in the first two innings and throwing 50 pitches, it seemed like he might not give them four innings.
His best pitch — his cutter — was not going where he wanted.
So what he did he do? He turned to his fastball, slider and changeup while pocketing the cutter for the next four innings, in which he held the Tigers scoreless. It allowed Servais to use J.T. Chargois for two innings and Brady Lail for one inning, while the other seven relievers got a night off.
“I know I mentioned it last night, but I thought Yusei did a heck of a job in-game adjustment to get through six innings,” Servais said before Tuesday’s game. “I didn’t think that was going to be the case after the first couple innings. But he did a really, really nice job. It’s something that he probably couldn’t have done a few years ago, but he’s getting better. He’s learning, and learning how to deal with certain nights when you don’t have your ‘A’ game. Our bullpen is in good shape tonight.”
In eight starts this season, Kikuchi is throwing his cutter in 40.4% of his pitches, which is similar to last year’s 40% usage and well above the 28% in 2019. But this season, he’s only throwing his four-seam fastball 30% of the time compared to 38% in 2020 and 49% in 2019.
The use of his slider is up slightly from the 16% in 2020 to 21% in 2021.
Kikuchi’s changeup, which was viewed as a work in progress when he first came over from Japan, has become a weapon. He’s throwing 8.6% of the time, compared to 6.3% in 2020. And that number could increase incrementally.
He threw it 14 times against the Tigers and got four swings and misses and weak contact.
Of the 65 changeups thrown this season, hitters are swinging and missing at 50% of them. He’s given up just two singles on the pitch while using it to get nine strikeouts.
“It’s been huge for him this year (it) truly has,” said catcher Tom Murphy. “It’s a pitch that moves in the exact opposite direction of everything else he has. And when you can do that as a pitcher, you just add a little another tool to your toolbox. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a pitch, we use half of the game like we do with this cutter. It just puts another pitch in the hitter’s mind that they have to worry about, especially one that moves in the opposite direction (that) is huge for him and huge for us.”
Kikuchi got help from Hisashi Iwakuma with the changeup.
“Kuma gave me some pointers regarding the pitch,” Kikuchi said. “I really started to throw it down in Houston in games. I do have a lot more confidence in that pitch now. I think it’s a much better pitch compared to the beginning of the year.”
Servais watched Jake Fraley (left hamstring strain) work out before the Mariners scheduled pregame workout. He also watched Marco Gonzales throw in the bullpen (left forearm strain).
“And I’m happy to report that I like what I saw,” he said. “Those guys are moving in the right direction.”
Fraley has been on the injured list since April 7 after suffering the injury on a diving catch in left field. Gonzales threw briefly off the mound on Monday and is expected to throw a more intense session on Friday.
“Jake Fraley went through a full workout on the field, hitting and running and throwing,” Servais said. “He looks great. Really excited about that one. I felt Marco looked really good in the bullpen today, too.”
Fraley is likely to join Class AAA Tacoma on rehab assignment as early as Thursday. The Rainiers closed a six-game series in Salt Lake City on Tuesday night. They have Wednesday off and open a six-game series with Reno on Thursday at Cheney Stadium.
It’s likely that Fraley will play the full 20 days of the rehab stint before the Mariners make a decision on whether to activate from the injured list and put him on the big-league roster or option him back to Tacoma. The roster situation is a little different than when he got hurt with Jarred Kelenic called up and playing every day.
On the farm
The Mariners had two prospects picked up player of the week honors (May 10-16) in their respective leagues. Top outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez was named the High-A West player of the week, continuing his torrid start to the 2021 season. In five games, Rodriguez put up a .423/.526/1.115 slash line in 31 plate appearances with three doubles, five homers, nine RBI, four walks and four strikeouts. In 12 games this season, he has a .353/.441/.784 slash line in 59 plate appearances with five doubles, a triple, five homers, 12 RBI, three stolen bases, seven walks and 13 strikeouts.
In the Class A-West league, outfielder Cade Marlowe of the Modesto Nuts picked up the honors after a five-game stretch where he slashed .381/.440/.905 in 25 plate appearances with two doubles, three homers, eight RBI, three walks, five strikeouts and two stolen bases.
Marlowe, 23, was a 20th round selection in the 2019 draft out of the University of West Georgia. In 11 games this season, he’s got a .375/.481/.725 slash line with five doubles, three homers, 10 RBI, four stolen bases, 10 walks and 10 strikeouts in 52 plate appearances.
Since he wasn’t around for the full week, outfielder Taylor Trammell didn’t win the honors for the Triple-A West. But his performance with Class AAA Tacoma has been stunning. Trammell was optioned to the Rainiers on May 12. He reported immediately to the Rainiers, who were playing in Salt Lake City. He was in the lineup that night and went 4 for 5 with a homer and four RBI. In his first give games with Tacoma, Trammell has a .636/.640/1.273 slash line in 25 plate appearances. That’s not a typo. He had 14 hits — eight singles, two doubles, four homers — with 14 RBI, two walks, three strikeouts and a stolen base.