Seattle Mariners

Mariners’ Kikuchi attempts to build momentum after an up-and-down first half of the season

‘It’s a team he hasn’t faired very well against,” said M’s manager on Kikuchi’s record vs. Angels

Mariners manager Scott Servais talks about rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who continued to struggle in his fifth start against the Angels, allowing a season-high seven earned runs in a 9-3 loss July 21 at T-Mobile Park.
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Mariners manager Scott Servais talks about rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who continued to struggle in his fifth start against the Angels, allowing a season-high seven earned runs in a 9-3 loss July 21 at T-Mobile Park.

It was important to Yusei Kikuchi, in his first season in the majors after pitching professionally for eight years in Japan, to wrap up his first half with positive momentum.

“I feel like I got off to a really good start, and then I kind of hit a bumpy road,” Kikuchi said recently through interpreter Justin Novak. “There were a bunch of learning points during that time. I learned (from them), and now I’m back where I want to be right now.

“I feel like I got to experience the ups and downs of the season in the first half, so that’s going to help me grow in my career.”

Kikuchi was impressive in his debut back in March when the Mariners played their opening series against the A’s in his native Japan, and has allowed three earned runs or less in 11 of his 18 true starts this season.

A few shakier outings sprinkled in between left him with a 4-6 record and 4.94 ERA — one of the higher earned run averages for an American League starter — at the All-Star break. Still, Kikuchi made a consistent effort to shift his season back in the right direction leading up to the end of the first half.

“I’m still learning the culture (of American baseball), and I’m getting into my routine,” he said.

With the adjustments he made — including putting less throws on his arm between starts — Kikuchi turned out one of his best performances of the season in his most recent start against the A’s on July 5. He matched a season-high seven innings, and allowed just two earned runs on four hits, while walking one and striking out five.

“Overall, I’m really happy with what Yusei has done in the first half,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “There’s been some good outings. There’s been some other ones where he’s struggled. I think he’s learned a lot.

“As we go into the second half, he’s adjusting his routine, which is really good. He’s backed off on the amount of throwing he’s doing, and he actually threw really well (in his last outing), which is great. He’s getting some results from that.”

Kikuchi said the coaching staff has also been working with him to get the velocity up on his curveball a tick, which can play well with the fastball and slider he uses most often. He’s also focusing on his pitch sequencing to make him more effective against opposing lineups.

He’s using his changeup much more frequently his past two starts, after rarely using — and in some outings not at all — during the first few months of the season.

“His changeup has come a long way,” Servais said. “There’s a lot of positives there. He’s learning the league, and where he can get hitters out in this league, and how his stuff plays best.”

“Changeup’s a great pitch,” said backup catcher Tom Murphy, who caught Kikuchi for the first time in a game this season his last outing. “Very, very good pitch.”

Servais has seen quick improvement since that fourth pitch has become a more regular offering, and how Kikuchi has moved the ball through the strike zone has kept more hitters off-balance.

“It’s really important,” Servais said. “I think you’re seeing that teams aren’t expecting it. It will start showing up on their scouting reports and things like that, but with everything else coming in, he’s widening the plate.

“Not everything is coming in. He’s coming to the glove side with the slider and the curveball and the fastball. The changeup going away is really effective, and allows his fastball up to play better, too.”

Kikuchi said he’s felt confident in his delivery and his stuff his past two appearances against Houston and Oakland, and wants to carry that into the second half.

“When his timing is right, and mechanically the ball is coming out good, and he’s really getting down the mound and extending, and has a lot of finish to his pitches, everything is lined up,” Servais said. “He feels it. He knows it right away — he’s going to have a good night.”

Kikuchi is scheduled to start Sunday’s series finale in Anaheim, against an Angels team he’s seen three times already this season.

“There’s a lot more to look forward to with Yusei, and that’s what excites me, because he can get a lot better from what he’s already done,” Servais said.

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.