TORONTO — By the time general manager Ross Atkins finished his first sentence prior to Tuesday’s game against the Orioles, Yusei Kikuchi’s importance to the Blue Jays had grown.
Hyun Jin Ryu is done for the season, Atkins announced, headed for surgery to repair the UCL in his left elbow. Ross Stripling has filled in admirably, quietly becoming one of the most valuable players on this entire roster, but Kikuchi remains the question mark.
With no hope of Ryu returning this season to strengthen the back end of this rotation, it’s Kikuchi’s job to figure it out. That didn’t exactly happen in the 6-5 loss to Baltimore, as Kikuchi allowed four runs over four-plus innings, handing another heavy load to the bullpen after lasting just two-thirds of an inning his last time out in Kansas City.
“There’s not much difference,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “He needs to throw strikes. It’s kind of tough to play from behind somebody. There’s too many non-competitive pitches. Believe me, having said that, there’s always hope, because he has good stuff. But at the end of the day, if you keep walking people, it’s going to be tough.”
The issues remain the same. Kikuchi walked four batters, giving him 32 in 50 2/3 innings this season, and allowed another pair of home runs. It could have been worse, too, with a handful of well-hit balls that died on or near the warning track. Twelve starts in, Kikuchi has shown flashes of what made him an All-Star last season — thanks to a strong first half that he was unable to sustain — but those have been balanced out by outings like Tuesday’s.
There was April 19 in Boston, when Kikuchi battled through a chill at Fenway Park to give Toronto five innings of one-run ball. Then, there was May 4 against the Yankees and May 16 against the Mariners, both strong six-inning performances.
“When he does throw strikes, he gets people out,” Montoyo added. “But when you pitch from behind and walk people, they’re going to score. It’s hard to hold good hitting teams like that one and anyone else we’ll see in the American League.”
When Kikuchi clicks, it’s been due to aggressive fastball usage and a new harder slider that’s taken the place of his cutter. This is where the back-and-forth between hitters and pitchers takes over, though.
When Kikuchi debuted this altered approach and found some initial success, the next lineup he’s facing gets that game tape. They see it, study it and try to find a way to land the counterpunch. This is why early success, or a new type of success, is so often met with skepticism in baseball until it’s done over and over again.
“Now, the hitters are making their adjustments,” Kikuchi said through a club interpreter. “I think that now, I need to be a little more fine, not throwing it just middle-middle with that fastball. Hitters are looking for it more often now. It’s just about being out of the middle part of the plate.”
Fighting uphill all night against an Orioles team that sits at the bottom of the division, an outstanding Toronto debut from No. 1 prospect Gabriel Moreno was overshadowed.
Moreno started his night by throwing out the blazing fast Jorge Mateo trying to steal second, delivering a perfect throw with an incredibly quick release from behind the plate. The 22-year-old went 3-for-4 at the plate, too, driving in the first two runs of his MLB career. Moreno already plays with the calm of a veteran, so even with Alejandro Kirk breaking out in a big way, he’ll continue to earn regular reps not just as a developing young catcher, but as a legitimate contributor.
“He reminds me of Kirk,” Montoyo said, leaning on his new favorite comparison. “They’re steady for being such young kids. They don’t get nervous. He showed you that at the end of the game with that RBI base hit. He’s doing great. I love the kid.”
After catching Kikuchi once after working with Kevin Gausman earlier, it would make sense for Montoyo to stick with Moreno in the rotation while Danny Jansen is out. That means he will be just as much a part of this process as anyone while the Blue Jays work to get Kikuchi back to a more reliable version of himself.
There’s plenty of time, but with Ryu down and a depth picture that doesn’t offer any immediate solutions, the Blue Jays need Kikuchi to join their recent surge.