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M’s notebook: The improved Yusei Kikuchi reappears in 2nd camp start

Yusei Kikuchi threw four strong innings in Mariners intrasquad play Monday night. (Getty)

After a rocky first outing of Mariners Summer Camp, Yusei Kikuchi better resembled what we saw in Arizona back in March in his second intrasquad start Monday night.

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To refresh your memory, Kikuchi spent the offseason making changes to his delivery. He cleaned up his arm path and as a result saw his velocity increase across the board with all of his pitches. A power pitcher in Japan, we simply did not see that in Kikuchi’s rookie season with the Mariners in 2019. With the 96 mph fastball and 88-92 mph slider we saw in Arizona, however, it appeared that guy might be back.

Kikuchi threw throughout the coronavirus shutdown, reporting after he arrived in Summer Camp that the new mechanics now felt natural to him. This is important. One frustration last year was that Kikuchi was quick to change things up when he didn’t have success. The hope now is that he has settled on what works best for him, and bouncing back Monday after the rough go in his first intrasquad game was an encouraging sign.

“Not just me but everyone in the rotation only had a few outings before go-time this year,” he said following his four-inning outing in which he allowed two runs (one earned) and struck out three. “I’m really glad that I got everything out of the way in these two starts, I’m feeling good going into Houston.”

Mariners manager Scott Servais liked what he saw from the 29-year-old southpaw.

“I thought he threw the ball pretty well tonight,” Servais said. “I thought his stuff was really good. Velocity was up there, maybe not a great feel with his curveball but a lot of good sliders, the fastball was there, he mixed in some good changeups. Hopefully he can build off of that.”

After cruising through his first three innings, Kikuchi was challenged in the fourth with a two-out infield single leading to the two runs that were scored. The runs, not a concern for Servais.

“I don’t think it is endurance or arm strength – nobody throws more than Yusei,” he said. “I was actually happy he threw a bunch of pitches that inning. We needed to get his pitches up there otherwise it would have been a little clunky. I know he would have liked to finish on a little bit stronger a note but it was all good. He’s healthy and he will be ready to go when we get to Houston.”

The Mariners begin the MLB season Friday against the Astros, and Kikuchi is scheduled to start Sunday in Game 3 of the four-game set against former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke. In four starts against the Astros last season, Kikuchi put up a 5.40 ERA with Houston hitters batting .299 against him. He’s hoping to show the Astros something different this season.

“I really worked hard this offseason,” he said. “I’m just really excited because I believe all of my pitches are different compared to last season.”

Mariners notes

• It’s that time of spring, er, summer – dings and dents are starting to add up. The Mariners have been holding back catcher Tom Murphy a bit in hopes that his bruised foot will heal. Monday night, utility candidate Sam Haggerty came out of the game early with a tight hip flexor.

“He’s had a really good camp, ” Servais said of Haggerty. “He wants to grind through it but we want to be smart. I don’t want to take a chance of losing anybody at all where we are at with this thing so taking him out, precautionary. We’ll see where he is tomorrow.”

• Dylan Moore, also in the mix for a utility spot despite arriving late in camp, spoke with the media Monday afternoon. Moore was late to report as he tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival to Summer Camp and had to quarantine and pass consecutive tests before being allowed to join his teammates at T-Mobile Park.

“I was asymptomatic which was a blessing for sure,” he said. “I was pretty surprised, I wasn’t sure it was a positive. I was curious if it was a false positive but then we got the nasal swab the next day and it was confirmed.”

Moore did his best to get work in in his hotel room doing pushups and taking dry swings. Now it is a matter of trying to get back into baseball shape quickly.

• Julio Rodríguez made a surprise appearance in the daily video interview with Servais. The young outfielder is currently dealing with a hairline fracture in his wrist but popped into the manager’s chair before the media session began.

“I’m good,” the 19-year-old prospect said. “I’m doing my job for the day. I’m the manager. What do you guys think about it?”

We didn’t have much of an opportunity to answer as Servais took over that point. And why was Rodríguez in the office?

“He comes into my office about two minutes before this call starts, he needs me to help him find a guy to clean his car,” said Servais with a smile. “The job of a manager these days.”

Rodríguez has been in the clubhouse and behind the scenes the last few days. While he is down for at least four to six weeks as the wrist heals, Servais said that he caught him in the batting cage earlier taking one-handed swings.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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