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Drayer: Yusei Kikuchi ready for unique Mariners debut in his home country

Mariners LHP Yusei Kikuchi's dream of pitching in the MLB goes back to his childhood. (AP)

Next week, Yusei Kikuchi will become the first Japanese pitcher to make his debut Major League start in Japan.

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It’s a unique experience that Kikuchi embraces on many different levels. First and foremost, he will realize the dream he has held since his early days in high school.

“When I was 15 years old, my high school coach took me aside and said, ‘Hey, we are going to try and make it to the Majors,'” Kikuchi recalled through interpreter Justin Novak. “‘That’s going to be your end game.'”

The baseball bug first got Kikuchi when he was in first grade and his mother tossed him a ball – “good arm,” he said of his earliest catch partner – but just two years later she would tell him that he was throwing a little too hard. So he switched to catch with his dad.

In Kikuchi’s middle school days he was a better hitter than pitcher and thought perhaps that was the direction he was heading in, but a growth spurt at 14 not only added five inches in height but increased strength. And the bat was put away.

“When I was in ninth grade that’s when I really started improving in my pitching and I knew I had to be a pitcher,” he said.

Still, his coach’s ambitions for him caught him off guard.

“When he first told me to set this goal, I honestly thought it was a reach and I never really thought I could make it here,” he said. “It was such a high level and I never saw myself playing here, but as I got older, as a junior, senior, that is when some Major League scouts came and started watching my games and I began to think maybe I can.”

The presence at Kikuchi’s games of the scouts – the Mariners’ among them – made him consider attempting to head to the US sooner rather than later. If he committed to play for a Japanese team he would have to do as others who came to the MLB before him did, either playing the nine years required at the time before free agency was granted or hope to be posted by his club. No Japanese player had come directly from high school, worked his way through the minors and made it to the big leagues, but Kikuchi explored the possibility with the full support of his parents.

“They were very happy that I set that goal to come here,” he said. “In my senior year of high school, my decision to come here or stay in Japan, they were very supportive of me to come here and start from zero as a minor league player and build my way up. They really (would have) supported that decision if I had made it.”

Kikuchi ultimately decided to continue his development in Japan’s Nippon Pro Baseball league rather than come to the US. His goal had not changed, though. Rather, it became more realistic to him with each season he pitched in Japan. After his sixth year in the league he decided to cross the Pacific to California to get a closer look, attending his first MLB game as a paying fan.

He loved the game, he loved the food, he loved the beach. In a word, he was sold.

“I first came as a tourist and I actually saw myself being able to live in this environment and culture,” he said. “That’s when it was, hey, I really want to come here. That’s when it became set for me.”

Three years later that dream has come true. And he returns to Japan, a beginning to his MLB journey he could not have scripted.

“Last October when we (the Saitama Seibu Lions, Kikuchi’s NPB team) lost in the postseason, I didn’t think I was going to pitch in Japan ever again, so I am very excited to get this opportunity that came up,” he said. “I felt a great bit of responsibility when I was told but also there’s a bunch of lefty starters like Marco (Gonzales) and (Wade) LeBlanc that are good role models to me, so I asked them for advice and am trying to make good adjustments.”

As a bonus, the player he grew up idolizing will be in the dugout and possibly on the field with him. Having Ichiro Suzuki in camp has been a highlight for Kikuchi, who at his introductory press conference put his countryman on a level so high he wasn’t convinced he was real.

“When I first started talking to him I was very nervous and I was kind of scared of what to say, and my heart rate would start getting faster and I would start sweating,” Kikuchi said of meeting Ichiro. “Now as camp has gone on, I have been able to pick his brain a little bit and he’s helped me adjust. He has been a good role model.”

Kikuchi remembers the scene in 2012 when Ichiro returned to Japan with the Mariners, and he believes we will see something even more frenzied this time.

“I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen,” Kikuchi said. “It was really crazy back then but I think the Tokyo Dome is going to start shaking with all the fans this time when he comes back.”

The fanfare in the Mariners’ first two games with the A’s will be enormous, but there will be no letdown for Kikuchi when the regular season resumes stateside. This is where he wants to be, and not just for what he can do on the days he takes the mound, but the rest of the week as well.

“I really like watching baseball,” he answered when asked what his favorite part of his baseball day is. “When I played in Japan I only had a certain amount of time to come to the States and pay and watch a game. Now I get to sit in the dugout for free and watch. That is my favorite part. It is amazing.”

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