Kikuchi’s unexpected 180 comes at perfect time for Blue Jays

Yusei Kikuchi struck out a season-high eight batters in six innings, Teoscar Hernandez and Santiago Espinal each hit a home run, and the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 4-1.

TORONTO – There’s inconsistent, and then there’s ineffective. For most of June, Yusei Kikuchi was the latter.

After five June starts, the left-hander’s ERA was 9.39 for the month and he was averaging just over three innings per start, so it was without much optimism that the Blue Jays gave him the ball on Thursday. Earlier in the week, manager Charlie Montoyo acknowledged the chance that Kikuchi wouldn’t even take his scheduled turn in the rotation, but with five games in 72 hours against the Tampa Bay Rays and their next day off a week and a half away, the Blue Jays needed all the arms they could get.

What could they do? They started Kikuchi. But the version of Kikuchi who showed up Thursday was more effective than he’d been in weeks, limiting the Rays to just one run on four hits while striking out eight in six innings. The outing – likely his best since signing a three-year, $36 million deal with the Blue Jays – set in motion a convincing 4-1 Blue Jays win.

“It feels great,” Kikuchi said afterwards via interpreter Kevin Ando. “The three or four past outings obviously weren’t great. I understand the position I put the team in: a lot of stress on the bullpen. Just being able to perform, go deeper into the ballgame, throw six innings and do my part. And after the game, getting after it with the boys in the clubhouse was really fun.”

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Teoscar Hernandez and Santiago Espinal homered Thursday, the first of five games between the AL East rivals, while Matt Chapman displayed some phenomenal defence at third base. But it was Kikuchi whose performance was most significant. Entering play Thursday, just one American League pitcher had walked more hitters, but the left-hander challenged Tampa Bay’s hitters this time, issuing only one free pass.

“His stuff is so good,” Montoyo said afterwards. “That’s the key. If you throw strikes, you’re going to get people out. That’s what he did tonight, and that was huge. We needed those six innings because of how our bullpen has been used.”

Notably, Kikuchi re-introduced his cutter Thursday after abandoning it earlier in the season. In his previous start – an ugly outing in which he didn’t escape the third – Kikuchi’s slider averaged just 83.5 m.p.h. Seeking a harder breaking ball, Kikuchi and pitching coach Pete Walker brought back the cutter, which helped him generate 13 swinging strikes.

“We had stayed away from throwing that cutter,” Kikuchi said. “But in talking with Pete, we thought it might be a good time to start throwing that cutter again.”

Of course it will take more than one good start for Kikuchi to rediscover the form he showed in May, when he posted a 2.36 ERA over the course of five starts. This was his first outing of at least five innings since May 28, and he has only completed six innings three times all year.

At times, those struggles have weighed heavily on the 31-year-old, who went out of his way to thank his teammates for standing by him during his up and down season.

“We’re together 24/7, so basically we’re his family,” Espinal said. “We’re all family here. Whatever he does, we’ve got his back. It doesn’t matter if he does good, it doesn’t matter if he does bad, we’ve always got his back. Today he showed up.”

That support has meant a lot to Kikuchi, who took questions wearing Alek Manoah’s giveaway t-shirt after his start.

“There was a rough stretch there, but they always seemed to have my back,” he said. “It makes it that much more special.”

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As the season unfolds, the Blue Jays will need Kikuchi to give them five innings on a consistent basis – a reasonable expectation for any capable back-end starter. But that consistency was elusive in June and has been at other times in Kikuchi’s career. He had a 7.03 ERA in June of 2019, for example, and just last year his September ERA was 7.82. This process may take a while yet.

But Kikuchi’s stuff remains lively and when he’s consistently in the strike zone he can keep good teams off the scoreboard, as he showed Thursday night. Considering the volume of work that’s necessary for the bullpen this weekend, those six innings are sure to have a team-wide impact as the series unfolds.

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A three-hit game from Hernandez helped power the Blue Jays offensively on a night they started an all-right-handed lineup in anticipation of lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who pitched 5.1 innings after Matt Wisler opened for Tampa Bay.

Meanwhile, Trent Thornton, David Phelps and Adam Cimber closed out the win for the Blue Jays with Jordan Romano presumed unavailable after throwing a combined 42 pitches the previous two nights. All told, it was encouraging night for the Blue Jays, who improved to 43-33 with the win. But with a full weekend of baseball ahead against these same Rays, the challenge is just beginning.

“The key was Kikuchi getting through six,” Montoyo said. “But a lot of credit to those guys for taking the ball.”

One down, four to go.

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