Kikuchi makes changeup a focal point as he seeks to ‘be even better’ for Blue Jays

Yusei Kikuchi and Chris Bassitt made their first appearances of the spring throwing two shutout innings each and Brian Severn had a big day at the playe going 2-for-2 with five RBI as the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-4.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – Yusei Kikuchi readily admits that he’s his own “biggest critic,” which is why over the winter, as he reflected on the bitter end to the Toronto Blue Jays’ season, he blamed himself for the Game 2 debacle against the Minnesota Twins. 

“If I was able to not give up those runs, then all the other question marks, why this, why that, that wouldn’t have happened,” Kikuchi says through interpreter Yusuke Oshima, referencing that fateful fourth inning in the 2-0 loss last Oct 4, when he replaced a dominant Jose Berrios after a leadoff walk in a pre-determined move, and allowed two runs to cross. “That’s what I think back to.”

At the same time, Kikuchi also understands what’s done is done – “You can’t change past results,” he concedes – so he refuses to dwell on 2023, good, bad or indifferent. 

Hence, he took nothing for granted during a winter spent training in Toronto, despite a strong rebound campaign during which he posted a 3.86 ERA in 167.2 innings over 32 starts with 181 strikeouts – all career bests in the majors. Within his regimen was work on further improving his fastball command and refining a changeup he threw roughly 10 per cent of the time a year ago, when opponents batted .267 and slugged .517 against it.

Both were focal points Monday, when he started for the Blue Jays and logged two shutout innings with one hit against and three strikeouts in an 8-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Chris Bassitt followed with two shutout innings of his own while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made his spring debut with a single in two trips to the plate and depth catcher Brian Serven added a three-run homer and two-run double. 

Kikuchi and Bassitt were the first rotation members to see Grapefruit League action, with Alek Manoah set to pitch Tuesday at the Detroit Tigers, Jose Berrios lined up for Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies and Kevin Gausman to be slotted in sometime during the next turn after one more live batting practice.

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“For guys like him, it’s not so much the go out and look for results in spring, it’s making sure he’s ready to pitch when the season starts,” manager John Schneider says of Gausman. “Things that he’s working on, fastball command, slider a little bit, a guy of his calibre just taking it slow and as long as he’s built up, he’s fine. Doing that in a live BP setting is just as productive as a game. Taking it easy, these guys are getting a little bit older, too, just making sure he’s on track.”

Kikuchi is determined to not only remain on track but also pick up speed on it this spring, in contrast to a year ago, when he arrived at camp looking to secure his place in the rotation while testing off-season mechanical changes and a new curveball.

In that way, there was “absolutely” more peace of mind for him this off-season, even if “there was no time to relax for me.”

“Just because I did well last year is not a guarantee that I’ll do well this year. That’s in the past,” he adds. “I went straight back to training right away and I think I can be even better, have a higher ceiling. I want to prove that this year.”

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With more runway this time around, he’s experimenting with a sweeper he didn’t throw Monday and doesn’t expect to use very often – “It’s my fifth pitch, so if I don’t need it, I don’t need it,” he says – and a changeup with far more utility. 

Switching to a spike grip from a more split-finger-esque grip, he threw four of them against the Pirates, with Henry Davis popping out to first on one and Jason Delay going down swinging at another. If he’s able to incorporate it more reliably than last season, it will give him another weapon with which to control bat speed, and get some quick outs, too.

“Still a work in progress,” Kikuchi says of his plans for the pitch. “But if I’m throwing that fastball inside and then throwing that changeup, maybe it avoids getting hit on the pull side for hitters. So working on how and when I can use that changeup.”

Kikuchi, at times, can have a penchant for tinkering with the shape of his pitches and their usage, so the more comfort he builds with the changeup during the spring, and the better he locates his fastball, particularly in on righties, the more he’ll be able to roll once the season begins.

Still, the transition from trying to find his game to refining it is a major one for the Blue Jays, who had him and Berrios as questions a year ago but pillars right now in a rotation that figures to be a key strength.

“He knows his game,” says Schneider. “Implementing the curveball last year was big for him and having the catchers on board, too, with what he’s trying to do. Delivery is in a great spot. Pitches are in a great spot and it’s just going out and using it in the right way. … That’s where he’s at right now.”

NOTES: Chris Bassitt threw 24 pitches during his outing, 12 of them sinkers, and then worked in five other offerings. The veteran righty says he feels that his body is in a good spot and no worse for wear after a career-best 200 innings last season, the focus right now is on “ramping up with each outing, just get through the soreness the correct way, make sure your body feels the right way bouncing back from start-to-start,” he explains. “I’d say that’s probably the biggest thing from this start to the next one. Obviously hitters, game, fans, the adrenaline goes up a little bit and you haven’t experienced that the last couple of months. Just make sure you bounce back the right way.” … Lefty Ricky Tiedemann played light catch Sunday and was slated to again Monday after being scratched from a start in Saturday’s spring opener. He remains day-to-day.

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