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Mariners’ Yusei Kikuchi struggles in Summer Camp debut

UPDATED: Tue., July 14, 2020

Seattle Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi (Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Others might have tried to do as much, but it’s impossible to believe that any Mariners pitcher put in more work during baseball’s coronavirus shutdown than Yusei Kikuchi.

Given his background of playing in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, Kikuchi prefers to throw on flat ground and off the mound more than typical professional pitchers in the United States. He would throw every day if the Mariners let him.

So when spring training and the 2020 season were put on hold due to the pandemic, Kikuchi didn’t kick back and start binge-watching Netflix. From his home in Phoenix he continued to run, lift weights and throw every day. That included three bullpen sessions per week and even a pair of live batting-practice sessions at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria.

Kikuchi found that all the work didn’t replicate the energy, emotion and intensity of live games, even intrasquad games against your teammates.

Making his first intrasquad start of “Summer Camp” amid Tuesday’s afternoon sunshine at T-Mobile Park, Kikuchi delivered a suboptimal outing. Plagued by wandering fastball command and constantly behind in counts, he allowed four runs on four hits with four walks and four strikeouts. It was the sort of pitch inefficiency that happened too often last season, when he was 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA in 32 starts.

“My bullpens have been really solid lately,” he said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “But I really felt the difference (of) actually pitching in a game.”

What was the biggest difference?

“Obviously, there was a lot more stuff going on, different signs, runners on base and a different tempo,” he said. “I felt like I lost my balance in my mechanics today in the game.”

When Kikuchi mentions mechanics, the Mariners are concerned he will tinker and/or change them. It’s something he did to his detriment last season.

During the offseason, Kikuchi went to DriveLine Baseball in Kent, Washington, and, with the Mariners’ approval and input, worked on simplifying his mechanics and arm path. Even with the results Tuesday, he isn’t going to change them like he might have last season.

“They are just minor tweaks and little minor adjustments,” Kikuchi said.

With opening day in Houston looming on July 24, he will get one more start before making his regular-season turn in the rotation over that weekend.

“I only have one more before it’s go time,” he said. “I just need to make my proper adjustments and get ready for this next outing. The main thing is fastball command and throwing a good, firm fastball. I felt off balance with my timing on my fastball. With a better fastball and better command, the offspeed pitches will be more effective.”

Fan participation in 2020

Even though fans can’t attend Mariners games at T-Mobile Park during the coronavirus-shortened season, they can make their presence felt while watching games on television.

The team announced the creation of the “Mariners Seat Fleet” and “Virtual Cheers” programs, in which fans can be part of the game experience.

The Seat Fleet is similar to what teams are doing in the Korean Baseball Organization games – fans can have cardboard cutouts of themselves put into the stands of games. For $30, fans can submit photos of themselves that will be turned into life-size cutouts.

From the news release: “the images will be placed in seats around the ballpark to bring a little ambiance to the game experience.

If a Seat Fleet image ‘catches’ a foul ball, the baseball will be mailed to the fan.”

The Mariners will donate a portion of those proceeds to nonprofit organizations supporting COVID-19 relief efforts.

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