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Drayer: Yusei Kikuchi showed the Mariners something in Sunday’s win

Yusei Kikuchi gave the Mariners a chance with four scoreless innings to start Sunday's game. (AP)

A topic of conversation on the Mariners pregame show Sunday was the stopper role and how, after being outscored 36-11 in the previous three games by the Twins, the Mariners could sure use one.

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For me, there was interest beyond ending the three-game losing streak. In a step-back season that will not be judged ultimately on wins and losses, this seemed like a great opportunity to learn more about the man on the hill in the series finale with Minnesota: Yusei Kikuchi.

We have seen what Kikuchi is when he is completely on and has his best stuff, and we have seen games where he has struggled a bit. The performances overall have been strong, but facing the Twins after watching them obliterate Mariners pitching for three days presented a different challenge. Fastballs that caught too much of the plate, something Kikuchi himself has pointed to as an area he needed to improve in, were hit out of the park.

How would he respond? Like the stopper the Mariners needed that day.

“He did,” manager Scott Servais said following the Mariners’ 7-4 win. “You do need the guy in your rotation to say no more. They are not going to do that today, and he certainly did.”

Kikuchi pitched six innings, giving up three runs (just one earned) on five hits and two walks, and along the way he struck out six. The line is hardly extraordinary, but considering the offense the Mariners saw from the Twins the three previous nights, the four scoreless innings Kikuchi threw to start the game gave his team something it never had in those games – a chance.

“He made some nice adjustments in how we went after them,” said Servais. “The Twins have been killing the baseball. He executed the game plan. It was huge to get through the six innings. He competed really well.”

Kikuchi competed well with a good fastball that sat around 94 mph and topped out at 97. More importantly it set up an ever better slider. While the slider was his out pitch, he needed the fastball to make it effective, and facing the Twins he knew he had little room for error with that pitch.

“I knew they were really strong against the fastball,” he said. “My strong point is really the fastball too so that doesn’t mean I’m not going to throw it. I was trying to kind of overwhelm them more with my fastball today.”

Kikuchi pitched inside more with the fastball than we have seen in the past and according to Servais that gave him more leeway with the slider. It didn’t have to be perfect. Another adjustment in a season of adjustments for Kikuchi.

As for playing the role of stopper?

“We’ve been having a lot of swings (up and down) – our momentum hasn’t been really good but I believe this team is really strong. For example, the win streak to start of the season,” Kikuchi said. “This long season is going to be full of ups and downs and if you give up, if you just lay down and give up, the season is going to be over. So I always go out there with a strong mindset and try my best for my team.”

It was just one outing, but in a season where the progress of certain individuals will outweigh the final finish of the entire team, Kikuchi’s performance may forecast a bigger win for the Mariners than the one ‘W’ recorded on their season schedule.

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