A two person gem will do just fine.
There have been far worse early season nadirs for the Seattle Mariners than around 9 AM PST this morning. Still, with the club careening towards .500, losing their de facto ace to an ominous arm injury, on the heels of a bullpen implosion, things felt woebegone. With Mitch Haniger and Kyle Lewis on the bench today to boot, I quipped that Seattle was going to need around 14 strikeouts to give the M’s a shot. He only got halfway there, but seven strikeouts and a flirtation with history was enough to push Seattle over the line for a 1-0 win.
Kikuchi was the story today, with one notable aide de camp who we’ll get to shortly. The lefty’s best outing of the year could scarcely have come at a more vital moment, with questions looming about the rotation and Kikuchi himself in the short and long term. Every outing this year is impossible to separate from the decision looming at the end of 2021: to take on Kikuchi for four more seasons at $16.5 million per year or not. Too often, inconsistency has spoiled sharp starts or entire outings for Kikuchi, however the pitcher we saw today looks like a bargain at that price.
The pitch mix today was refined, leaning heavily on both his low-90s cutter and low-80s slider even as his four-seamer sat comfortably above 95 mph. Despite multiple mind-boggling mistakes from the home plate umpire, Kikuchi worked around both his walks thanks to his blossoming profile as both a groundball and strikeout pitcher. Today’s results pushed Kikuchi’s groundball rate up to 49.4%, comfortably above-average and generally quite desirable considering the extremely low rate at which groundballs are likely to hurt you en masse compared to line drives and well-struck fly balls. In holding the Astros hitless through six and a third innings, Kikuchi didn’t give up a single bit of contact that could be considered a particularly “lucky” out; Carlos Correa’s double to end the no-no bid in the bottom of the 7th was the first and only truly well-struck ball Houston’s monstrous lineup could muster. Mostly, things looked like this.
Yusei Kikuchi with a strong seven innings for the Mariners.
— Inside Edge (@IE_MLB) April 29, 2021
For all their foibles offensively (and last night’s key error), getting a bunch of grounders is a magnificent strategy for any pitcher on Seattle’s staff considering the brilliance of J.P. Crawford and Evan White, as well as Kyle Seager’s consistency. Watching Kikuchi pitch can sometimes be exasperating, seeing him vacillate between ace and acridity. Today though, it was a joy.
Delightful as it was, the M’s offense did nearly nothing to assure a skid-ending victory to conclude their road trip. Kyle Seager crushed a couple balls 105+, earning a double on one and a shifted lineout on another, but the only run Seattle slipped across against rookie and semi-professional West Coast swing dancer Luis Garcia was a wall-scraper from Taylor Trammell that Chasssssssssssssss (pronounced Chassis, which is pronounced Chassey, which is pronou-) McCormick couldn’t rob. It was, shockingly, delightfully, enough in Minute Maid Park today.
Trammell’s fourth home run appeared to actually hit Chas’s glove, but stuck where it was meant to in the front row of the bleachers. Trammell’s ups and downs have been tough to watch at times, but they have continued to strike me as healthy features of a learning curve for a young player. No, Trammell probably isn’t a big league quality starter right now, but that doesn’t mean the 23 year old cannot become one, and his collection of skills continues to encourage me that he will ultimately be just that. With a runner on 1st and two outs in the ninth, Trammell showed off that array of abilities, tracking down a floating pop fly that might have threatened a run or at least put the tying run at third to secure the game.
Thanks to some solid bullpen work from Anthony Misiewicz and 9th inning eviscerator Kendall Graveman, just one baserunner reached second base all night. Headed home at last, victory tastes mighty sweet.