As the Seattle Mariners have slogged through this step-back season, manager Scott Servais has often pointed to the importance of the starting pitcher setting the tone for each ballgame. But, in four of his past five starters, rookie Yusei Kikuchi hasn’t been able to set a positive one.
Kikuchi’s recent trend of shaky outings continued Tuesday night at T-Mobile Park from the outset, with Kansas City stringing together three base hits to open the ballgame, and pushing across two runs before the Mariners even recorded an out in the first inning.
It didn’t get any better from there, and Kikuchi for the third time in less than three weeks matched a season-high, allowing six earned runs before he was pulled. The Mariners went on to lose 9-0 to a Royals team that clinched their first road series win of the season.
Kikuchi (3-5, 5.15 ERA) stumbled through his five innings of work, logging less than six for his fifth consecutive start, serving up nine hits and allowing two walks while striking out five on 97 pitches. His fastball velocity was a few ticks down from his usual 93-94 mph range, instead hovering around 91, and his command fluctuated.
“There’s certain nights where you maybe don’t have your crispest or your best fastball,” Servais said. “Those are the nights you find out what kind of pitcher you are. He’s had a few of those, where he maybe hasn’t been throwing the 94 mph heater and the nasty slider right out of the chute, but you’ve still got to find a way to keep your team in the game, and he’s struggled to do that.
“That’s on us. That’s on pitching coaches, myself to kind of help ihim along in those areas. Certainly we’re working a lot on it to get him to understand when you don’t have you’re A-game, you’ve got to still keep your team in the game, and that just hasn’t been the case on a few nights.”
Speaking through interpreter Justin Novak, Kikuchi was quick to note his velocity wasn’t there from the start, and said that contributed to the bumpy outing, during which seven of Kansas City’s starters logged at least one hit off him, and 17 of the first 19 batters he faced — including eight to start the game — put the ball in play.
“I just didn’t have the sharpness of my fastball today and the speed of it to jam hitters and push hitters,” he said.
Kikuchi struck out four consecutive batters between the fourth and fifth, but only after giving up a three-run homer to Whit Merrifield with one out in the fourth that pushed Kansas City’s lead to 6-0. The final two outs of the fourth, and the scoreless fifth, was easily the most efficient stretch Kikuchi pitched, but the decisive damage was done by then.
He worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the second, but Jorge Soler crushed a solo homer in the third before the first of Merrifield’s two homers in the game broke the score open in the fourth.
When Kikuchi’s fastball is not locating, and his late-breaking slider is not working early on, the results are often frustratingly similar.
“You’ve got to find a way to get through it, and be creative and do that,” Servais said. “He understands where he’s at. He’s disappointed. I thought he threw the ball much better over in Minnesota (last week).
“That wasn’t so much the case tonight. They were on him. It happens in this league. You are going to get banged around a little bit. It’s how you react to it that really defines what kind of game, what kind of season you’re going to have. He’s learning. We’re going to stay on it.”
The two runs Kikuchi allowed in the first marked the fourth time in the past five started he’s given up at least one run in the opening frame. He has allowed four earned runs or more in four starts during that stretch — including six earned runs apiece in three of his past four — has a 10.35 ERA in his past five appearances, and has been tagged with a loss in four of those. His last win came on May 19.
“As far as my mechanics, I felt great today and it was good, but I’m probably just going to do better with my conditioning, and try to have my best self before I go up to the mound,” Kikuchi said.
Four different relievers closed the game for Seattle, and didn’t have much more success. Both Matt Festa and Jesse Biddle allowed the Royals to tack on runs in their innings of work in the sixth and eighth.
Biddle allowed a leadoff double in the eighth before Merrifield cranked his 10th homer of the season — and second of the game — in the to make it 9-0. Merrifield finished with a career-high six RBIs in his second career multi-homer game.
Cory Gearrin and Gerson Bautista worked scoreless innings in the seventh and ninth, respectively, and each recorded a pair of strikeouts.
“It was nice to see (Bautista) kind of blow some guys away certainly,” Servais said. “The game is stretched out at that point, we’re behind by a bunch, but he threw the ball really good. Lots of good signs there.
“Cory Gearrin had been out the last three-to-four days with a little neck issue. He was fine tonight, and nice to have him back as well.”
The Mariners were shut out for the fourth time this season, and first time since May 1 against the Cubs. It was the first time since 2009 the Royals held Seattle scoreless at T-Mobile Park.
Kansas City starter Homer Bailey (6-6, 4.82) pushed his record back to even, tossing a season-high 7 2/3 innings, and allowing just five hits and two walks while striking out six on 121 pitches.
“They opened up the game and widened the gap, and he relaxed,” Servais said. “A little bit easier to pitch when you’ve got that big of a cushion. He threw the ball fine. He elevated the ball against us tonight. He got a lot of our guys up in the strike zone. ... We didn’t handle him very well.”
Seattle’s best two opportunities to score came in the first four pitches of the game, when Mallex Smith and J.P. Crawford hit identical fly balls deep to right center, but Jorge Bonifacio hauled in both with his back against the wall.
During the three hours that followed, the Mariners stranded eight runners, and put just four in scoring position. They dropped their second consecutive game after alternating wins and losses the past 13 outings. Seattle hasn’t won two straight since May 13-14, when it swept Oakland in a two-game series.