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Drayer: Yusei Kikuchi’s Mariners spring debut does not disappoint

PEORIA, Ariz. – The highly anticipated Cactus League debut of Mariners left-hander Yusei Kikuchi did not disappoint.

Brock & Salk: What you need to know from Mariners spring training

While the game means absolutely nothing as it pertains to the regular season, there was plenty of interest in the first look at Kikuchi as he faced Major League hitters. Most interested? Kikuchi himself.

“I’ve been pitching in Japan for the last nine years, I wanted to test what I was doing in Japan against Major League hitters,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak following his outing in the Mariners’ 11-3 win over the Reds. “I wanted to see how they reacted. I was excited and also kind of nervous about that,”.

Kikuchi’s 1-2-3, 13-pitch, nine-strike first inning was highlighted by a rather awkward Joey Votto swinging strikeout on a curve ball that had the six-time All-Star and one-time MVP fooled.

“Oh my gosh!” Votto exclaimed to the media after. “Very good curveball. It was very surprising. In the league right now there are not very many pitchers who throw a curveball like that. Hyun-Jin Ryu from the Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw from the Dodgers. Maybe a couple of others who throw a traditional curveball from the left side like that. It has lots of potential.”

Kikuchi was modest when asked about his strikeout of Votto.

“It’s spring training for him, I’m sure he’s tuning up his swing too,” Kikuchi said. “But to strike out a hitter of that caliber, I’m really happy about the result today.”

Kikuchi’s second inning did not go as smoothly as his first. He walked the leadoff batter and then had a couple of errors committed behind him. Two unearned runs scored, but he showed he was able to get the ball on the ground a couple of times when he was in trouble. It all added up to a very good first impression for his manager.

“Yusei Kikuchi, pretty good,” Scott Servais said. said on the field as a crowd of reporters surrounded him. “Better than pretty good. It was an outstanding first time out there. He had some nerves but the fastball was really good, up to 95, the breaking pitches we know are outstanding.”

Kikuchi threw 29 pitches in his two innings but far more before the game, as is customary in Japan. He arrived at the park early for his start, went through his warmup bullpen throwing routine in preparation, then played catch in front of the dugout until it was time to take the mound. A very different sight in a MLB park.

“We wanted to let him go through his normal routine,” said Servais. “He was out here 50-55 minutes before the game started. That’s what he normally does. Over time we will have four to five outings for him, this spring to tighten that up a little and as the season goes on it will be a learning curve for him.”

Kikuchi himself has acknowledged that he is not just adjusting to playing in the US, but still learning as a pitcher. There is much to take away from his first experience against big league hitters.

“What I got from today is Major League hitters are very powerful and that’s something I learned today and I am going to take home and learn and work on for my next start.”

The Mariners plan to keep Kikuchi in regular rotation, so he should take the ball again in five days.

Shannon Drayer’s Mariners notebook from Monday morning