PEORIA, Ariz. — Yusei Kikuchi felt the nerves Monday that would normally accompany taking the mound in front of tens of thousands of fans in a major ballpark, not the few thousand who showed up for a spring training game in the desert.
“I’ve been pitching in Japan for the last nine years and I wanted to test what I was doing in Japan against major league hitters and I wanted to see how they reacted,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “So I was really kind of excited and also nervous about that.”
Kikuchi made his debut for the Seattle Mariners throwing two innings against the Cincinnati Reds in a start that featured a little bit of everything, from moments of dominance to Kikuchi working out of a jam.
The Mariners were pleased with what they saw.
“He had a little nerves, no doubt about it, but (his) fastball was really good, he was up to 95 (mph), the breaking pitches we know are outstanding. Thought he handled it really, really well,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “He’s going to take a little time to get his routine. You saw him throwing outside the dugout before, there’s a few adjustments there, but really happy for him getting that first outing under his belt.”
Kikuchi’s most notable at-bat was his lone strikeout, when he tied up Joey Votto on a deceptive 2-2 curveball that left the veteran slugger waving unsuccessfully. While Kikuchi has a fastball in the mid-90s, his breaking pitches and the ability to hide the ball in his windup add to the challenges of facing the lefty.
“It’s spring training and I’m sure he’s tuning up his swing as well but to strike out someone the caliber of Joey Votto, a hitter of that caliber, I’m really happy about the result of today,” Kikuchi said.
The rest of the outing forced Kikuchi to do a little bit of everything. He had to scamper off the mound to cover first base on a groundout by Yasiel Puig. He faced the challenge of traffic on the bases after a rough second inning that featured a leadoff walk, two errors and two runs allowed — although both were unearned.
Kikuchi threw 29 pitches with 19 strikes, the first step in a transitional season.
“Obviously, when you’re up on the mound you want to shut them down one, two, three when you’re up there,” Kikuchi said. “But after I let some guys on today I think I was able to keep my pitch count low and get some double play balls, so I’m happy with what I did.”
One of the biggest adjustments will be Kikuchi’s pregame routine. Servais noted Kikuchi was on the field nearly an hour before first pitch and still figuring out the timing led to Kikuchi playing catch in front of the dugout several minutes before the team took the field.
Servais said the club will work on tightening up that routine as the season goes on.
The first outing for Kikuchi was documented from all angles by Asian photographers following his every move, from his warmup in the bullpen to the scrum after his outing with dozens of reporters.
Seattle wants to limit Kikuchi’s innings during the regular season and make the first-year transition from pitching in Japan less arduous. But the Mariners also need to build up Kikuchi so he is ready to take on a starter’s load when his innings won’t be limited.
Kikuchi said he hadn’t been told what comes next, but he’s likely to get his second start sometime this weekend.