Sugoi! Kikuchi gem keeps Mariners above .500

Yusei Kikuchi turned in one of his best performances since migrating from NPB to the Majors today. Over seven innings, he held one of the best lineups in the American League to just one hit, a one-out double in the seventh to Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, while facing just two batters over the minimum. Fortunately, the still-moribund Seattle offense managed to plate one run for him, a solo homer by Taylor Trammell in the 3rd, so Kikuchi was rewarded with a win for his stellar efforts.

The victory kept the Mariners over the .500 mark for the season, a position that was starting to look precarious in recent days. After last Saturday's 8-2 drubbing of the Red Sox, Seattle had dropped four straight games to fall to 13-12 on the year; during that span the M's as a whole batted just .175 and were outscored 19-10. They were perhaps on their way to a win yesterday in Houston before the strengths of the early season took some time off, with the usually impeccable defense and incomprehensibly strong relief pitching turning a 5-3 lead in the 8th into a 7-5 loss thanks to a big error and yet another blown save by Rafael Montero. That struck some as a sign that, like in 2019, the Mariners' early success was a mirage and the real deal was now going to assert itself. That may yet come to pass, but for today, Kikuchi was in charge and manager Scott Servais did nothing to screw things up—Montero was not called upon to nail this one down, instead the save opportunity was properly given to Kendall Graveman, who shut the Astros down on ten pitches to earn his third save.

Kikuchi's game was a departure from his so-far normal habit of throwing a lot of pitches early. He was relieved after seven due to pitch count—he was closing in on 100 pitches—but going into the 7th had averaged just 13 pitches per inning, and that despite being mercilessly squeezed by home-plate umpire Alfonso Marquez. Kikuchi's official line shows he walked two and struck out seven, but let's look at those two walks. First, to Alex Bregman in the first inning:

 Then walk number two, to Myles Straw:

Those don't look like walks to me—in fact, Straw, at least, should be another strikeout—and without that kind of umpiring Yusei's pitch count would likely have been low enough to get him through at least one more inning. That he mowed down the Astros so well despite that unpredictable moving strike zone is even more remarkable. As his countrymen might say, Sugoi desu ne.

Yusei helped himself defensively too, fielding a Baltimore-chop off the bat of Yuli Gurriel following the one hit he allowed in exceptional fashion, sliding to catch the ball on one high bounce and throwing the runner out with time to spare. Sam Haggerty and Taylor Trammell didn't want to be shown up, so they turned in exceptional catches as well:

If this is a turning point for the Japanese lefty, it couldn't come at a better time. With James Paxton out for the year and his replacement, Nick Margevicius, on the injured list awaiting a diagnosis for his troubles, today the Mariners also placed ace Marco Gonzales on the IL with a forearm strain. According to Servais, Marco will miss "at least a couple of starts," so the rest of the rotation has to pick up the slack. “Not just myself, but the entire staff definitely needs to step up and throw [many] innings deep into the ball game,” Kikuchi said. “An extra inning, even just an extra out.” That means efficiency with the pitch count, even when the umpire seems to call balls and strikes with the aid of fun-house mirrors. Hopefully, Kikuchi can continue this trend in his future starts as well. “I wouldn’t say it was the best I’ve felt but definitely up there,” he said. “I’m just really happy to be able to contribute and help the team win today against a good opponent, and I’m happy we were able to end the losing streak.”

The Mariners now return home for three against the Angels and three against the Orioles. How the pitching will stack up with both Margevicius and Gonzales on the shelf remains to be seen, but Servais has said repeatedly that the club will stay with a six-man rotation. There is a stretch in the first couple weeks of May with off days (May 6th and 10th) that would permit staying on the every-sixth-day schedule without using six pitchers temporarily, so shuffling of turns may be the order of the day for a while. Chris Flexen will start tomorrow night, though, that's a lock. Replacing Marco on the active roster is RHP Domingo Tapia, who has some starting experience but has mostly been a reliever in recent minor-league campaigns.

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