NEW YORK – On the one-year anniversary of the Mariners’ most recent no-hitter, thrown by James Paxton in Toronto, another left-handed Seattle starter flirted with such a magical possibility.
Rookie Yusei Kikuchi, pitching for the first time at Yankee Stadium, seemed totally comfortable in what often is an intimidating setting. Using a balanced mix of his three best pitches – fastball, curveball and slider – he efficiently worked his way through the Yankees lineup, delivering a second straight stellar performance and leading the Mariners to a 10-1 win Wednesday.
“It was a nice bounce back after a tough (5-4) loss last night,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It starts with your guy on the mound, and Yusei was awesome. He kind of took over the game.”
After throwing seven innings and allowing one run on three hits with 10 strikeouts in his previous outing in Cleveland, Kikuchi pitched a season-high 7 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on three hits with a walk and three strikeouts and improving to 2-1.
But this outing wasn’t like the start in Cleveland, where 55 of his 93 pitches were fastballs. Kikuchi didn’t have his lively fastball against the Yankees, so he had to improvise and turn to his secondary pitches.
“In my last start, my fastball was really working for me,” he said through interpreter Justin Novak. “I was hoping it would work for me like it did last time. I was able to adjust. I watched Marco (Gonzales) pitch yesterday and he was getting a lot of outs with his off-speed pitches, so from the second inning on I decided to make that adjustment.”
Of Kikuchi’s season-high 106 pitches, he threw 38 fastballs, 31 sliders, 27 curveballs and 10 change-ups.
“They didn’t hit very many balls hard off him,” Servais said. “He didn’t have as good as a fastball as he did in Cleveland, but he had a better curveball.”
The Mariners provided plenty of run support, banging out 14 hits, including solo home runs from Mitch Haniger and Edwin Encarnacion and a two-run homer from Ryon Healy, who also had a career-high three doubles on the night. Seattle has hit 71 homers on the season, still the most in the American League.
“The cards just kind of lined up tonight,” Healy said. “I wish every game could be like this, but it’s a tough game out there in a tough league.”
With Paxton now a Yankee and watching in the dugout, Kikuchi carried a no-hitter into the sixth. He reveled in the opportunity to pitch in Yankee Stadium instead of recoiling like some first-timers.
“This is the place where all the history of baseball is a center point,” he said. “I felt that going into the game. I was really excited to go out there. It was amazing. I wasn’t intimidated or nervous.”
After walking the first batter of the game, a less-than-ideal scenario, Kikuchi retired 16 straight batters with relative ease. In five innings pitched, he threw just 59 pitches with a pair of strikeouts.
But the no-hit bid ended with one out in the sixth inning with Seattle leading 5-0. Kikuchi elevated a 0-2 fastball to No. 9 hitter Mike Tauchman, who took a defensive swing and produced a broken-bat bloop over Healy’s head at third base and into shallow left field. D.J. LeMahieu followed with a single. With runners on the corners, the Yankees got their only run off Kikuchi when Luke Voit hit a deep sac fly to right field. Kikuchi came back to strike out Clint Frazier looking to end the inning.
“I actually carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning a couple of times in Japan, but they’ve gotten hits off me with one out and two out,” he said. “But I was really thinking about it. But I also wasn’t going out there thinking six innings and giving up three runs either.”
With his pitch count under control, Kikuchi worked a 1-2-3 seventh inning and started the eighth with the Mariners leading 7-1. He retired the first two batters, but gave up another bloop single to Tauchman that ended his night.
Having thrown a season high in pitches and the top of the order coming up to face him a fourth time, Servais went to the bullpen. Right-hander Cory Gearrin gave up a single to LeMahieu, but struck out Voit to end the eighth.
Given the Mariners’ careful plan with Kikuchi’s usage, letting him go over 100 pitches and pitch into the eighth was a logical step.
“He needs to hit those thresholds,” Servais said. “He’s continuing to just learn. And it’s fun to watch.”
It’s a step Kikuchi wanted to happen earlier in the season.
“All the other starters, I’m watching them go over 100 pitches and I want to do as well as I can for my team,” he said. “Also in Japan, I have thrown 130 and 140. My arm is fine.”