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Mariners’ Yusei Kikuchi using attitude, aggression to reveal a No. 1 mentality

Yusei Kikuchi's win Friday was his eighth quality start in his last nine games. (Getty)

Yusei Kikuchi’s traditional stats from the 2020 Mariners season didn’t jump off the page, but his peripheral numbers suggested he may have been on his way to figuring out what would make him a successful big league pitcher.

There’s no doubt about it now. The best version of Yusei Kikuchi that the Mariners hoped they would get when they signed him prior to the 2019 season has arrived.

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On Friday night at T-Mobile Park, Kikuchi dominated the Tampa Bay Rays – the American League East leaders and defending AL champions – over seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball in a 5-1 Seattle win. And that was just the latest instance of several stellar outings to choose from this season.

With Friday’s win, Kikuchi has now thrown a quality start (six innings or more, three earned runs or less) in eight of his last nine games. With a 3.46 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 3.1 strikeouts to walk ratio and 1.6 WAR, the 30-year-old left-hander has put himself in a position to be considered not just Seattle’s best starting pitcher this season but an All-Star candidate.

“I think it’s a great question and I think it’s something we should talk about,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Friday when asked if Kikuchi should be considered for the AL All-Star team. “I said it about a couple weeks ago – I think he’s one of the top five left-handers in the game right now. I really do, with his stuff, his ability to command, the aggressiveness, and obviously he’s getting the results.”

In that response, Servais touched on something that is coming up a lot when people talk about what Kikuchi’s doing this season: aggressiveness.

Friday was a perfect example. With the Mariners’ bullpen in need of a break after it had to cover seven innings the night before, Kikuchi went to his blistering four-seam fastball time and again in the later innings of his outing to keep the Rays off the bases. In fact, as Mariners analyst Mike Blowers pointed out on 710 ESPN Seattle’s postgame show, Kikuchi repeatedly shook off catcher Luis Torrens in favor of his fastball. The Rays, like many other teams this season, had trouble catching up to it – especially in the times when he threw it 98 mph at the top of the strike zone.

“I was excited about what I was seeing in those last couple of innings, just the way that he went about his business in wanting to finish that thing and just his attitude that he had out there,” Blowers told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer. “That tells me that next step is there for him right now and he’s taking it, and it’s awesome because he can be really dominant in this league and I think he’s finally starting to understand that.”

Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth spoke about the importance of how Kikuchi is using his fastball in an interview with Drayer that aired on the 710 ESPN Seattle pregame show.

“The four-seam development in the past six weeks has been huge,” Woodworth said. “He’s not only using it more but he’s throwing it in the zone more. He’s challenging guys with it. An obstacle for a lot of guys, with any pitch that moves a lot, you want to throw that pitch because guys don’t hit pitches that move. But guys also don’t hit 97, 98 mph fastballs from the left side with rise. So he’s learning that, he’s figuring that out, and he’s seeing the results and taking that into the next game and the next game. So we’ve been seeing this exponential growth with the fastball confidence.”

Kikuchi’s growing confidence isn’t limited to one pitch, either. It’s with all four of his pitches, and more generally just with his presence on the mound and comfort against major league batters.

“The confidence that he’s built in himself has been a huge, huge step forward from where I met him last year, and last year was a huge step from the previous year,” Woodworth said. “We’re just seeing a much more mature, confident, aggressive Kikuchi, and now all four of his pitches are starting to play and work off each other. And because of that he’s more aggressive, he’s not afraid of anybody, so he’s in good counts constantly, putting himself in situations to punch out a lot of guys.”

Not that Kikuchi is relying solely on strikeouts. Ground balls have become another preferred method of retiring hitters, and he had 12 on Friday night to go with six Ks.

“I like the combination in that I feel like he can go out there and punch tickets if he wants to, or if he needs to be efficient, he can go to that cutter, he can go to the bottom of the zone, he can get a bunch of ground ball outs,” Blowers said.

The way that things have been going for Kikuchi, it begs a question. As Drayer asked Woodworth, is Kikuchi showing that he has the mentality of a No. 1 pitcher?

“Oh, absolutely,” Woodworth responded. “When he’s locked in and he is letting it eat, that’s an ace. Not just the stuff but the animal-like aggression behind it. That’s his biggest development of growth the rest of the season and probably the rest of his career is tapping into that as often as possible. … These past six weeks, we’ve seen him bring that most of the time, and the times that he’s not there, he’s found a way to get there very quickly.”

Blowers, who has seen his fair share of dominant pitching from his 11 MLB seasons as a player and time in the broadcast booth, recognizes what Kikuchi is displaying now.

“You see that fastball on average at 96, that’s pretty special. That’s elite – not just for left-handers but for starting pitchers,” Blowers said. “He’s taken another step forward, and this stuff that we’re seeing right now is pretty special.”

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