ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Mariners aren’t ready to announce whether rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi will have his next start shortened to just one inning.
But it will happen in either that next start, which is scheduled for Friday at T-Mobile Park or the start following it.
Manager Scott Servais didn’t want to commit to anything just yet. The decision will be made as a group with the front office and the pitching coaches.
“We’ll see how he feels today,” Servais said before the game Sunday. “We have an off day tomorrow and his next turn rolls around in the next homestand, I think the second game when we get back against Texas. We have some time.”
Why are the Mariners doing this? Well, it dates back to a usage plan general manager Jerry Dipoto discussed when Seattle signed Kikuchi in the offseason to a four-year, $57-million contract. With previous Japanese pitchers struggling to adjust to the more frequent starting schedule in Major League Baseball — four days rest instead of the five days rest used in Nippon Professional Baseball — the Mariners wanted to control Kikuchi’s usage and overall workload this season to help avoid the fatigue and injuries that often come as a result of that change.
Following a plan they used for pitchers in their minor-league system, the Mariners plan to have Kikuchi make a one-inning start approximately once a month that will offer some recovery time and lessen his overall innings and pitch total.
Kikuchi has made six starts this season, posting a 1-1 record with a 4.68 ERA. He’s thrown 32 2/3 innings, striking out 23 and walking eight. His past four starts have come on four days rest. He picked up his first MLB victory in that fourth start, which came Saturday night. Kikuchi pitched just five innings and seemed to fatigue at the end. It seems like this would be an optimal time to make that one-inning start as a breather.
“We’re playing for the long play here,” Servais said. “It’s not just what he looks like in April and May. Hopefully he’s in a really good spot when we get to August and September. That’s the goal.”
The team’s winning record (16-9) won’t change that plan. They are committed to helping Kikuchi adjust and stay healthy. This is still viewed as a development year for him.
“It takes a lot of discipline,” Servais said. “We know it’s out there. We’ve been very public about it. I think the reason we’ve been public about it is so we do stay disciplined, be real. That’s why you do those things, so you hold yourself accountable. We, as an organization, want to do what’s best for him.”
Kikuchi understands what the Mariners are doing. He might not completely agree with it.
“As a competitor, you want to pitch one more pitch, pitch one more out, pitch one more inning,” he said through interpreter Justin Novak. “But what the coaches say and what the GM says is going to go. I’m going to do whatever I need to do. If it’s one inning, I’m going to go out there at 100 percent and pitch that inning.”
The Mariners likely will call up a pitcher from Class AAA Tacoma to supplement that start instead of taxing their bullpen. The expectation is that top prospect Justus Sheffield would get that call.
Servais moved outfielder Mallex Smith down in the lineup from his leadoff spot. Smith came into the game Sunday with just three hit in his past 20 at-bats. They are hoping it will help him with his approach at the plate.
“You saw it the other night when he had a 2-0 count and he takes a big hack vs. knowing who you are and just playing your game,” Servais said. “At times we’ve seen Mallex really good, using the whole field and driving the ball everywhere. But it happens to everyone throughout the course of the year. You get into a little funk. He’ll get out of it. He’s got a good idea at the plate and good strike-zone judgment.”
Jay Bruce was out of the starting lineup after feeling his left quadriceps tighten up while sprinting into foul territory to make a catch in the victory Saturday night. The Mariners don’t think it’s serious and kept Bruce out as a precaution. He did appear as a pinch-hitter Sunday, drawing a walk in the seventh to load the bases.
Right-hander Chasen Bradford (shoulder discomfort) threw a 28-pitch live batting practice session Sunday morning. Servais said Bradford felt good coming out of it. If Bradford feels fine Monday, the expectation is for the Mariners to activate him from the injured list before the game Tuesday in San Diego.
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