OAKLAND, California — The Yusei Kikuchi experience is sure to be a wild journey. Think about it. The rough stuff to just slide on. Despite this, a regularly changing repertoire and approach to pitch use. And, just to keep it snappy, erratic command to increase volatility.
Hence, with 16 starting the lefthander’s first season with the Toronto Blue Jays, the variance in his appearance is as everywhere as it was on his pitch chart Tuesday, when he walked five and hit two more over 2.1 innings of a 5-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
Incredibly, he gave up only four runs while allowing nine of the 14 batters he faced reach base, making for an extremely ugly night with a chance at victory. Still, for the eighth time this year, Kikuchi has lasted four innings or less, once again dumping an unfair workload on a beleaguered bullpen, with an unsteady Jose Berrios set to kick off a matinee series finale on Wednesday.
“It all goes back to the starting rotation – they have to give us a chance and we played behind,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “And Kikuchi wasn’t good. Everywhere. It’s hard to play behind someone who doesn’t strike strikes and that puts you behind the 8-ball from the start. Of course our attack is good enough to come back in every game, but lately it seems like we’re trying to catch up every game.”
The bigger question, of course, is what to do with Kikuchi.
His final appearance — six innings of one-run ball with one walk and strikeout eight in a 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays — suggested significant progress. He went back to casting a cutter after switching to a slider earlier this year, found the zone with that and his four-seamer, and had reason to be optimistic he’d found a combination that works.
Then Tuesday’s mess. Just take a look at this pitch chart:
“I’m pretty sure it’s a mechanical problem,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “So if I can just clear that up, I feel like it will put me in a good position.”
Since the speed is still there and he’s had six trips anchoring a Blue Jays win, there’s always reason to believe the next outing has a chance to be much, much better.
Still, it doesn’t happen nearly consistently enough and one of the assumptions that would have made his inconsistencies more bearable – that the rest of the rotation would log enough innings around him – has collapsed and suddenly it’s not that easy to provide the runway he’s been looking for. need.
If the alternatives were attractive, that would make the decision easier. But it already looks like Casey Lawrence will have to start in place of Kevin Gausman, who is still unable to drive off the right ankle on Saturday, smoked from a line drive, Thomas Hatch struggled with his season debut on Saturday and Max Castillo is intriguing, but no for sure.
Given that landscape, there’s reason to keep looking to see if Kikuchi might make it out, even if Montoyo quickly hooked him against the Athletics when there was a reason not to.
“It’s starting to be a track record, like, okay, you know he’s having a hard time and he’s shown during the match that he hasn’t been able to make the adjustment to come back, so that’s why,” explains Montoyo from. “I know our bullpen is overused, but I knew if we made the change, we’d still be in the game. And that’s how it worked, because the bullpen did a great job. We were in the game, I think because we made that move.”
Complicating things are that the Blue Jays have suddenly ended up in a daze on the record, although that may very well have to do with the constant digging of holes.
After Kikuchi gave up a pair in the first, Matt Chapman’s two-run homer in the second tied the knot and after the A’s scratched out two more in the third, one of them on a walk by Trent Thornton after Kikuchi had loaded the bases , Teoscar Hernandez’s solo shot in the fourth turned it into a 4-3 game.
A solo explosion by Stephen Piscotty off Thornton in the fifth provided some certainty and the Blue Jays came out empty after the first two batters reached base in the sixth, when pinch-hitter Vladimir Guerrero Jr. nearly crushed a slider from AJ Puk, but settled for a loud flyball instead of a three-run homer.
“It’s a game of inches when you lose these kinds of games,” said Montoyo. “It was a good swing, but he just missed that ball.”
A single by Chapman kept the inning moving, but a bad send led to Alejandro Kirk being thrown out easily at home and the Blue Jays didn’t threaten meaningful again.
They have lost five in a row to match a May 7-13 season high set.
“To get off to a good start, everyone has to play well at the same time,” said Bo Bichette, who singled in the fifth to extend his hit streak to 10 games, but was eliminated when he tried to steal second. “We’ve had times where the attack went and the other side didn’t and then times when the opposite happened, the throwing was really good. That’s part of playing a full season, but we definitely have to get everything going at once.”
The Blue Jays aren’t here now and at a time when they need answers from their pitching staff, Kikuchi continues to ask questions.