Kikuchi delivers against Yankees as Blue Jays offence continues to struggle

Hazel Mae and Ben Nicholson-Smith discuss Yusei Kikuchi's best outing as a Blue Jay, as well as how the bullpen has been clutch so far.

TORONTO – This was the kind of start the Blue Jays were counting on when they signed Yusei Kikuchi.

Facing a Yankees team on an 11-game winning streak, Kikuchi limited New York’s potent lineup to just one run on three hits Wednesday evening to notch his first win with his new team – still a significant milestone within big-league clubhouses. He pitched into the sixth for the first time all season, striking out Aaron Judge with a runner on third before inducing a pop-up from Anthony Rizzo to escape the inning and deliver his best outing as a Blue Jay.

From there, relievers David Phelps, Tim Mayza, Yimi Garcia and Jordan Romano closed the game out with three innings of scoreless relief and the Blue Jays won 2-1 to salvage one game against New York and improve to 16-10 on the season.

“I’m very happy,” Kikuchi said afterward through interpreter Kevin Ando. “I was finally able to go deep into the ballgame against a good ballclub. I was finally able to get the first ‘W’ of the year. To stop a win streak means a lot more for myself and my team. I’m just really happy that I was able to contribute to a ‘W.’”

For a Blue Jays team that’s played close game after close game in the early going, it was perhaps fitting that the game came down to the final play. With the bases loaded, Isiah Kiner-Falefa hit a ground ball to Matt Chapman, who skipped a throw over to first base. But Vladimir Guerrero Jr. handled the in-between hop before dropping to the ground and pumping his fist in celebration.

He’s a fast runner,” Chapman said of Kiner-Falefa. “So I let go of the ball and rushed the throw a little bit. Luckily Vlad made a great play to win a game. Sometimes you’ve got to make plays like that. I was just happy that he was able to come up with it.”

With a fastball that topped out at 96.5 m.p.h., Kikuchi was working with lots of velocity, as usual. Just as important was the continued development of a hard slider that generated seven of his 15 swinging strikes.

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Entering play Wednesday, Kikuchi had pitched five innings just once since signing a three-year, $36 million deal in spring training. His previous start – a 2.2 inning outing in which he allowed four earned runs to the Astros – had arguably been his worst. Given those struggles, his bounce-back outing was especially significant for the Blue Jays.

“He’s got good stuff,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “If he throws strikes, he’ll get people out … you’ve got to give Kikuchi a lot of credit.”

Of course, it’s worth noting that Kikuchi’s five starts have all come against talented teams with two against the Yankees, two against the Astros and one against the Red Sox. To some extent, that’s life in the AL East, though, and barring a schedule change, his next start will be against the Yankees yet again. At least now, he’s finding his rhythm on the mound.

Offensively, the Blue Jays continued to falter Wednesday with just two runs on four hits. Thankfully for the home crowd, one of those hits was a Chapman home run and another was a Guerrero Jr. RBI single. This time, that was enough – barely – but the Blue Jays would welcome more offence from a group that began the day batting a collective .244/.302/.406. 

Those numbers aren’t as bad as they sound at a time that big-league hitters are hitting .232/.306/.370, but they’re hardly impressive, either. The bottom of the order was especially quiet Wednesday with Vinny Capra, Tyler Heineman and Bradley Zimmer going a combined 0/7 with a walk and three strikeouts. 

“You’re seeing guys take better at-bats and maybe just not get the results we want,” Chapman said. “I looked up and saw Bo (Bichette) had 30 some balls hit over 100 m.p.h., which is at the top of MLB.”

“Come October, it’s not always a slugfest,” he added.

Still, help may be on the way soon. Playing in his second straight rehab game, Teoscar Hernandez doubled and struck out twice in three at-bats for the Dunedin Blue Jays. Barring the unexpected, he’ll join the Blue Jays in Cleveland this weekend and provide the Toronto lineup with some welcome power.

For us to be able to grind, continue to push and find a way to win this tough game, it’s huge,” Chapman said. “Hopefully we can carry this momentum. We’re still finishing out a long stretch. So it’s good to get this win and then get on the road and hopefully get off to a good start in Cleveland.”

Ultimately, it’ll take more than the efforts of one hitter to turn this lineup around, and pinpointing the timing of that breakout is impossible for now. At least the Blue Jays have a formidable starting rotation in the meantime. And by delivering his most convincing performance of the season against the Blue Jays’ biggest threat in the AL East, Kikuchi provided a little more reason to believe in this pitching staff.

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