Blue Jays looking for answers after another difficult outing for Kikuchi

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi reacts after giving up a solo home run to Milwaukee Brewers' Mike Brosseau during the third inning of a baseball game. (Jon Durr/AP)

MILWAUKEE, WI. — So, where do they go from here?

That’s the question the Toronto Blue Jays have to answer after Yusei Kikuchi’s latest self-combustion in a 5-4 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. Erratic, inefficient, slow-working, and uncertain, Kikuchi drudged through two-plus hard-to-watch innings Saturday, finishing with as many hits allowed as outs recorded.

After a stellar stretch this May, when he pitched to a 2.36 ERA over five starts, Kikuchi’s season has collapsed in June. His ERA over five starts this month now sits at 9.39. His velocity, fastball command, and length-of-appearance have all been in decline. He hasn’t completed five innings since his final outing of May, putting undue pressure on an already-stressed bullpen as the Blue Jays navigate a stretch of 24 games in 24 days leading into the all-star break.

“I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for him. He hasn’t pitched well,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “And he put us in a tough spot today again.”

Now, we all know Kikuchi’s been working since spring training on a bevy of adjustments the Blue Jays believe can unlock his potential. Upping his fastball usage; ditching his cutter; throwing his slider harder; cutting his time between pitches; eliminating the hesitation in his delivery; using different sequences, lanes, catcher set-ups. It’s a lot and it’s worth noting that Kikuchi’s only been a Blue Jay for a little more than three months. He deserves some runway to figure all this stuff out.

But he might benefit from an opportunity to do so away from competition. Because trying to make all those tweaks every five or six days in live games that count, against the best hitters in the world, isn’t working. And it’s costing the Blue Jays games. The club has lost five of Kikuchi’s last seven starts and 10 of his 14 outings this season. And one of those four wins was Toronto’s unbelievable comeback from a five-run deficit against the New York Yankees last weekend.

“He’s just got to keep working at it,” Montoyo said when asked where his club would go from here with Kikuchi. “When he throws strikes, he gets people out. He’s got, what, fifty-something innings and sixty-something strikeouts? But he’s just got to command his pitches. We all know he’s got good stuff. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to throw strikes.”

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Of course, it was never going to be easy Saturday with the Milwaukee Brewers sending Corbin Burnes to the hill. As per usual, the National League Cy Young contender was tremendous, dotting high-spin, mid-90’s cutters away from right-handers and into the two lefties in Toronto’s lineup, while racking up whiffs with strike-to-ball breaking pitches.

Burnes pitched into the eighth inning, holding the Blue Jays to only four hits and two walks on the day. Matt Chapman and Bo Bichette did get him for solo shots, but otherwise the Blue Jays barely threatened. Burnes was just too nasty and efficient, striking out nine over his 7.2 innings with 18 swinging strikes.

That the Brewers then turn things over to Devin Williams and Josh Hader out of their bullpen is borderline unfair. Williams got Alejandro Kirk — one of MLB’s hottest hitters this month — to strike out chasing his air-bending changeup. And while Hader wasn’t at his best – allowing a couple hits and a run, as Lourdes Gurriel Jr. drove in Chapman’s two-out double — he was still an extraordinarily uncomfortable plate appearance for Blue Jays hitters, working 97-mph sinkers up-and-in, including the one Gabriel Moreno grounded out on to end the game with the tying run on first. Milwaukee’s best pitchers came as advertised.

As did Kikuchi. He threw 40 pitches in the first inning, 12 of them in a walk of Willy Adames, who patiently fouled off four consecutive full-count sliders before looking at one that missed the zone. Adames eventually scored two singles later, as Trent Thornton began to warm in the Blue Jays bullpen. It wasn’t until after he clocked Mike Brosseau with an errant fastball that Kikuchi finally got into the dugout by striking out his second batter of the inning.

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Kikuchi’s second frame had plenty of strikeouts, too — three of them. The problem was what happened in between. A two-base Bichette throwing error; a fastball that missed by so much that Moreno could only deflect it as it sailed to the backstop and a runner advanced to third; an Adames RBI single off a fastball; and an Andrew McCutchen liner off another heater that sailed over the left-field wall for a two-run shot.

That inning took a mere 27 pitches as Thornton was forced to warm up again. But after a brief break for the Blue Jays to hit, Thornton was back up throwing as Kikuchi started his third frame — a rather clear indication as to the centimetres of rope Montoyo was giving his erratic starter. Kikluchi’s first pitch of the inning missed. His second was demolished 392-feet over the left-centre wall by Brosseau. And out came Montoyo to get him.

“I’ve struggled in the past few outings — mostly with command, falling behind in the count. And then the pitches where I try to get back into the count are the ones that are getting hit pretty hard. So, kind of the same thing again today, unfortunately,” Kikuchi said through club interpreter Kevin Ando. “For the most part, I think this is my first time ever struggling with my fastball command to this extent. That’s definitely going to be the priority — to get that feel back, to get that command back on that fastball.”

In a season with no shortage of difficult-to-watch Kikuchi outings, this may have been the worst. And that includes a four-walk afternoon in Kansas City earlier this month when he recorded only two outs on 45 pitches. Remember, Kikuchi only allowed three runs that day. Saturday, he allowed five. And while only two of them will count as earned due to the Bichette error, anyone who watched the start knows exactly why it went the way it did.

Kikuchi’s ongoing reluctance to trust his mid-90’s fastball has been as baffling to the Blue Jays as it is to anyone who’s watched him pitch this season. But only a cursory glance at his pitch chart ought to tell you exactly why he was hesitant to throw it Saturday:

As soon as it left his hand, it was liable to go anywhere. Meanwhile, Kikuchi’s sliders were consistently up and on the plate, which was great news to a Brewers lineup that made a clear decision to hunt them. Kikuchi threw 37 fastballs and 27 sliders Saturday, but Milwaukee hitters swung at only nine of those heaters and 18 of the breaking balls.

And as Kikuchi kept missing with his fastball — just 15 of the 37 he threw resulted in strikes — it only got easier for the Brewers to sit spin. Four of the six hits Kikuchi allowed came off sliders and three of them were put in play at 99-mph or harder.

Making matters worse was the fact Kikuchi’s fastball sat 93.7-mph and hit 95 ­— his season average entering the start — only three times. Kikuchi’s breaking ball velocity was down significantly, as well, sitting 83.5-mph. He’d averaged 87-mph with his slider entering the outing and throwing the pitch harder was a focal point within the series of adjustments the Blue Jays asked him to make earlier this season. And while he threw only five changeups on the day, those were coming out softer, too — down 2.5 mph from his season average.

But, ultimately, the root of Kikuchi’s trouble is fastball command. He’s one of the few left-handed starters in the game to throw a mid-90’s heater. We know the Blue Jays want him throwing it more often; he knows the Blue Jays want him throwing it more often; the world knows. But it’s not much use throwing your fastball more often if it’s not on the plate.

Compounding the problem is that Kikuchi’s command Saturday was worse than it was even in his last two starts, both of which featured four walks. Couple that with the decline in his velocity and the warning flags are blinding.

“Body feels fine. I feel really strong and healthy,” Kikuchi said. “I just think it’s something that’s maybe more mechanical or just something that is within my craft that I need to sharpen.”

Maybe the best thing for him is a break. A phantom injured list stint to decompress, work on his adjustments away from competition, and return in a few weeks with a clearer head. Problem is, the Blue Jays need someone to pitch. The club has eight games next week. They’re in a stretch of 18 over 17 days. They have one off day between now and the beginning of the all-star break on July 18.

And what are their alternatives? Thomas Hatch started for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons Saturday and is on turn with Kikuchi. But he’s tentatively scheduled to make his next start for the Blue Jays during the team’s doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays next weekend. Do the Blue Jays pull him from that assignment and slot him into Kikuchi’s rotation spot?

That would likely mean calling upon Casey Lawrence for the double-header assignment. The 34-year-old isn’t out-stuffing anyone, but he has a 1.85 ERA over 11 starts for the Bisons this season, and the Blue Jays value his strike-throwing and dependability. Lawrence last pitched for the Bisons on Wednesday, so the Blue Jays could certainly rejig his schedule to make it work.

Or the club could look to line Max Castillo up for the doubleheader day. He was stretched out with Buffalo earlier this month, but has been pitching bulk relief from the Blue Jays bullpen since, including four innings of exceptional work Saturday in which he allowed only a hit and two walks while striking out seven.

“He was outstanding,” Montoyo said. “In his first outing against the Yankees, he was nervous. Today, he said he was more relaxed. And he showed that. He did a great job.”

Castillo used 69 pitches to do it, and the Blue Jays probably couldn’t extend him much beyond that if he stepped into the rotation. But it’d be possible to cover a full starter’s innings with a combination of him and one of Thornton or Jeremy Beasley. And even if Castillo only gives the Blue Jays four innings, that would match the most Kikuchi’s given them in any of his last four outings.

The options aren’t exactly inspiring. But neither is the prospect of rolling the dice again with Kikuchi in his current form. That’s the question the Blue Jays will have to answer between now and Kikuchi’s next rotation turn on Thursday as the club opens a crucial, five-games-in-four-days series against the Tampa Bay Rays, who currently sit a game behind the Blue Jays in the AL East. Where do they go from here?

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