As Kikuchi loses control, Blue Jays’ pitching problems just get worse

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, foreground, walks toward the dugout after being removed during the third inning of the team's baseball game against the Oakland Athletics in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, July 5, 2022. (Jeff Chiu/AP Photo)

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Yusei Kikuchi experience sure is one hell of a wild trip. Think about it. The raw stuff to simply shove. In spite of that, a frequently changing repertoire and approach to pitch usage. And, just to keep things spicy, erratic command to spike the volatility.

Hence, 16 starts into the left-hander’s first season with the Toronto Blue Jays, the variance in his performance is just as all over the place as his pitch chart was Tuesday, when he walked five batters and hit two more over 2.1 innings of a 5-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics.

Incredibly, he gave up only four runs while allowing nine of the 14 batters he faced to reach base, making what could have an extremely ugly night one in which there was an opportunity for victory. Still, in lasting four innings or less for the eighth time this year, Kikuchi once again dumped an unfair workload on a beleaguered bullpen, with an unsteady Jose Berrios due to start a Wednesday matinee series finale.

So, suboptimal.

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“It all goes back to the starting rotation — they’ve got to give us a chance and we’ve been playing behind,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “And Kikuchi was not good. All over the place. It’s tough to play behind somebody who’s not throwing strikes and that kind of puts you behind the 8-ball from the beginning. Of course, our offence is good enough to come back in any game but lately it seems like we’ve been trying to catch up every game.”

The bigger question, of course, is what to do with Kikuchi.

His last outing — six innings of one-run ball with one walk and eight strikeouts in a 4-1 win ocer the Tampa Bay Rays — suggested significant progress. He went back to throwing a cutter after switching over to a slider earlier this year, found the zone with that and his four-seamer, and had reason to feel optimistic he’d found a combination that works.

Then, Tuesday’s mess. Just look at this pitch chart:

“I’m almost positive that it is a mechanical issue,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “So just being able to clean that up, I feel like will put me in a good position.”

Since the velocity is still there and he’s had six outings in which he’s anchored a Blue Jays victory, there’s always reason to believe the next outing has a chance to be much, much better.

Yet it’s not happening nearly consistently enough and one of the assumptions that would have made his inconsistencies more tolerable — that the rest of rotation would log enough innings around him — has collapsed and suddenly providing the runway he needs isn’t as easy.

Now, if the alternatives were appealing that would make the decision easier. But it already looks like Casey Lawrence will need to start in place of Kevin Gausman, still unable to drive off the right ankle smoked by a line drive Saturday, Thomas Hatch got roughed up in his season debut on Saturday and Max Castillo is intriguing but no sure bet, either.

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Given that landscape, there’s reason to keep seeing if Kikuchi maybe figures it out, even if Montoyo hooked him quickly against the Athletics when there was some reason not to.

“It’s becoming a track record, like, OK, you know he’s struggling and he’s shown that he hasn’t been able to make the adjustment during the game to come back, so that’s why” explained Montoyo. “I know our bullpen is overused, but I knew if we made the change, we were still going to be in the game. And it worked out that way because the bullpen did a great job. We were in the game, I think, because we made that move.”

Complicating matters is that the Blue Jays have suddenly fallen into a funk at the plate, although that may very well be tied to them having to constantly dig out of holes.

After Kikuchi gave up a pair in the first, Matt Chapman’s two-run homer in the second knotted things up and after the A’s scratched out two more in the third, one of them on a walk issued by Trent Thornton after Kikuchi left the bases loaded, Teoscar Hernandez’s solo shot in the fourth made it a 4-3 game.

A Stephen Piscotty solo blast off Thornton in the fifth added some insurance and the Blue Jays came up empty after the first two batters reached in the sixth, as pinch-hitter Vladimir Guerrero Jr., nearly crushed a slider from A.J. Puk but settled for a loud flyball instead of a three-run homer.

“It’s a game of inches when you’re losing games like this,” said Montoyo. “It was a good swing but he just missed that ball.”

A Chapman single kept the inning moving but a bad send led to Alejandro Kirk getting thrown out easily at home and the Blue Jays didn’t meaningfully threaten again.

They’ve lost five in a row to match a season high set May 7-13.

“To go on a roll, everybody’s got to play well at the same time,” said Bo Bichette, who singled in the fifth to extend his hitting streak to 10 games but was thrown out trying to steal second. “We’ve had moments where the offence is going and the other side is not and then moments where the opposite’s happened the pitching has been really good. That’s part of playing a full season, but definitely we have to get everything rolling at the same time.”

The Blue Jays aren’t there right now and at a time when they need answers from their pitching staff, Kikuchi keeps adding more questions.

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