‘Rookie’ Kikuchi in spotlight in major league debut in Japan
TOKYO (AP) — Talk about a pressure situation.
Just as he was adjusting to life in the United States, Yusei Kikuchi is back in Japan getting ready to make his major league pitching debut in front of a sellout crowd at Tokyo Dome.
From his new teammates, to his Japanese fans to his family and friends, everyone will be expecting Kikuchi to come up with a dominant performance when he takes the mound for the Seattle Mariners on Thursday in Game 2 of the season-opening series against the Oakland A’s.
“I never thought I would be making my debut in Japan,” Kikuchi said in Japanese. “It’s like a dream come true. It’s a new season for the team and new start for me so I want to pitch my best.”
In January, Kikuchi signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the Mariners that incudes club options that could make it worth $109 million over seven seasons.
And if the pressure of opening the season in Japan wasn’t enough, Kikuchi is following in the footsteps of American League rookie of the year Shohei Ohtani. The two players are graduates of the same high school in Iwate Prefecture in northern Japan.
Seattle manager Scott Servais said he didn’t hesitate to give the 27-year-old lefthander such a big assignment.
“Early on in camp, it was easy for me to see he was more than capable of handling everything we could throw at him,” Servais said. “His ability to continue to attack the strike zone with all his pitches is really going to be important throughout the season. I see no reason why he can’t go out here and have a really good outing his first time out.”
Servais has said Kikuchi’s biggest challenge will be adjusting to a more grueling MLB schedule.
Teams in Japan only play a 144-game season compared to 162 in the majors and the longest travel time between cities in Japan is less than two hours by plane.
The goal is to keep Kikuchi in the rotation all season but the Mariners may limit his innings on occasions to help with that.
And when it comes to getting advice on adjusting to the majors, Kikuchi couldn’t have a better mentor than teammate and veteran Ichiro Suzuki.
“My teammates, members of the pitching staff have all given me their kind input and Ichiro-san has also given me some advice,” Kikuchi said at a press conference.
Just for the record, Ichiro made it clear that he wasn’t telling his young compatriot what to do.
“I gave him advice because he asked for it, I didn’t volunteer it,” Ichiro said, drawing a big laugh from Kikuchi.
The Mariners have traded several notable veterans this off season while building a roster with younger prospects. Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto is hoping Kikuchi will fit perfectly in his plans.
Last season, Kikuchi helped the Seibu Lions finish with the best record in the Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball when he went 14-4 and struck out 153 batters over 163-2/3 innings.
He has a career record of 73 wins, 46 losses and one save with a 2.77 ERA.
Kikuchi pitched Hanamaki-Higashi High School to Iwate’s first national final at Koshien Stadium in the 2009 Spring Invitational. The following autumn, he met with representatives of at least eight big league clubs that were interested in signing him.
In October, six teams named him as their top pick in Japanese baseball’s annual amateur draft, with the Lions winning his negotiating rights in a draft-day lottery.
Throughout his professional career, Kikuchi has established a reputation as Japan’s hardest-throwing left-handed starter.
In addition to a four-seam fastball and a slider, he also throws a curve and a change, and has experimented with a split-fingered fastball and a two-seam sinking fastball.
Left-handers from Japan are a bit of a rarity in the majors. Kazuhisa Ishii enjoyed success with the Los Angeles Dodgers between 2002 and 2004 while Kei Igawa was a big disappointment for the New York Yankees over two seasons from 2007.
Oakland manager Bob Melvin knows Kikuchi will present a challenge for his young team.
“They kind of a have a home- field advantage here with Ichiro and Kikuchi,” Melvin said. “We’ve seen some limited video of (Kikuchi) so we know he’s good…this will be our first taste of him so it’s going to be exciting especially here at Tokyo Dome.”