SEATTLE – The Mariners’ first dalliance with Major League Baseball’s new experiment for extra innings, using the international tiebreaker in which a runner starts at second base for each team in a tie game after the ninth inning, wasn’t executed as planned or expected, yielding a suboptimal result in a 3-2 loss to the Oakland A’s on Saturday.
The A’s, who were introduced to the rule in an opening-day win over the Angels, made it look easy as Robbie Grossman hammered a ground-rule double to right-center off of reliever Dan Altavilla, allowing pinch-runner Tony Kemp to score the go-ahead run at T-Mobile Park.
The Mariners made it look complicated, failing to move Shed Long Jr. off second base while facing Oakland closer Liam Hendriks. It featured a poor sacrifice bunt attempt by Tim Lopes, who bunted it in the air back to the pitcher with two strikes in the count, a pop out from Dylan Moore and a strikeout from J.P. Crawford.
But the game was about Yusei Kikuchi.
From a statistical and result standpoint, Kikuchi has had better outings in his brief tenure with the Mariners than his solid showing in the Mariners’ loss.
There haven’t been nearly as many strong outings as the organization expected when he was signed to a four-year, $56 million contract going into the 2019 season.
Given his pedigree playing in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and his obvious ability, the Mariners expected there would be more outings like the complete-game shutout in Toronto, the 10 strikeouts in seven innings in Cleveland or the 7⅔ innings and one-run allowed on three hits at Yankee Stadium.
Instead, they got so many inconsistent outings where they were never quite sure which version of Kikuchi they would get. Any little thing — a bad bullpen session, a piece advice from someone else or just how he was feeling would lead to change in his mechanics and arm slot for the sake of change. It wasn’t good.
That’s why his second start of the 2020 season might be one of most important for the Mariners. Following an offseason spent trying to simplify his mechanics and shorten his arm path working with the Mariners’ pitching coaches and the people at Driveline Baseball in Kent, Washington, with the goal to generate consistent command, stable mid-90s velocity on his fastball and increased performance on all of his pitches, Kikuchi has not strayed from all that he learned and changed in preparation for 2020.
There have been minor reasons to change, whether it was the shutdown of baseball during spring training, the months of waiting and throwing for a season that never seemed like it would start, suboptimal showings in summer camp as he prepared for the shortened season and a less-than-stellar first start where his fastball velocity was good, but his command wasn’t.
But this outing against Oakland was his first payoff for that work and constant faith in the changes.
Kikuchi delivered six shutout innings and looked dominant, allowing two hits with a walk and nine strikeouts. Of his 89 pitches, 58 were strikes. But 20 of those strikes were swings and misses, which is a good number for any pitcher.
His reward for such an outing? A no decision and some towel waving and standing ovations from his fellow starting pitchers, who were seated by the home dugout, as a consolation.
Lefty Nick Margevicius was handed a 2-0 lead in the seventh inning, and he couldn’t hold it. He gave up a one-out double to Mark Canha, and with two outs, he left two fastballs down the middle of the plate to Chad Pinder, who fouled off the first one and deposited the second one in the seats in right-center to tie the game.
Seattle’s two runs came in the third inning off A’s starter Mike Fiers. With two outs, J.P. Crawford and Austin Nola each singled and Kyle Lewis worked a walk to load the bases for Kyle Seager, who dumped a single into center field to score two runs.
The inning ended prematurely when Lewis was thrown out at third on the play. Notoriously a slow starter in every season, Seager is off to a hot start in 2020. He’s reached base in eight of the nine games while his 10 RBIs lead the team.
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