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Yusei Kikuchi’s Big Day

An alternative beginning, middle and end for you to imagine

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The game started out with a fairly compelling storyline. Yusei Kikuchi was to face Masahiro Tanaka, a fellow Japanese pitcher who went to a high school near Kikuchi’s, whose high school team a young Kikuchi watched win a championship. Kikuchi has described Tanaka as a role model to all Japanese pitchers, and this was Kikuchi’s first chance to face him. It’s like a terribly easy movie plot, where the young rookie - we’ll ignore that Kikuchi is only 2.5 years younger - takes on this larger-than-life figure from back home, a legend at the end of his career - we’ll also ignore that Tanaka is only 30.

They came into this game fairly evenly-matched on the season, our rising star and our fading champion. Kikuchi took a 5.19 ERA into this start, certainly high but with some moments this season that have shown glimpses of his potential. His most recent outing, for example - his first complete game, a shutout in which he gave up just 2 hits. There are, also, the 102 strikeouts he began the game with.

Tanaka came into the game with an ERA of 4.68 on the year, a bit lower than his young opponent’s but the highest of his career. His strikeouts, 120 but with 15 more innings than Kikuchi, a respectable number but fewer than in years past. He is just beginning to descend.

In the movie, Kikuchi would’ve had a shaky first inning or two, because he would’ve been nervous. He would’ve put all this pressure on himself to be able to hold his own against Tanaka. He might have even given up a run right away, making everyone think he didn’t stand a chance. However, he would have quickly settled into a groove and we would have been locked in a pitcher’s duel. Tanaka, the hometown hero, would have come out with his best stuff, a mirror image of the Tanaka he used to be, the Tanaka of 2015 with the 0.994 WHIP. At some point, for the sake of the movie, Tanaka would have to have given up maybe like two runs, but still a very good outing. But then in the 9th inning Kikuchi would have gotten into a big jam, probably like a bases loaded in the 9th situation, and it would look like he was definitely going to blow it, but he gets out of the jam, wins the game and shares a very significant handshake afterward with his role model. A sort of passing of a torch. Because this movie was never about the two competing with each other, but about one man earning the respect of someone he’s always admired.

(You know, thinking about this “movie,” I keep thinking “there’s no way this terrible plot could sustain a whole two-hour-long movie,” and then I remember that this game took over three hours)

It didn’t go the way a movie would have gone. It went the way it was probably just going to go in life. Kikuchi did struggle in the first inning, giving up 2 runs in the first 5 pitches - on Aaron Judge’s career 100th home run - but he did not settle down. He gave up 3 more runs in the 3rd inning, and was pulled after just 4, leaving the game with his team down 5-0. He did not have a single clean inning, giving up 8 hits and 3 walks while striking out just 1.

Tanaka, on the other hand, was brilliant. He took a no-hitter into the 5th inning, just long enough to make us all start to wonder if this was really happening AGAIN, and left the game after 7 scoreless innings, having given up just 3 hits and 1 walk while striking out 7. He is, after all, only 30. This is not really the end of his career. These two will likely face each other many more times.

Reggie McClain took over for Kikuchi to begin the 5th inning. He gave up one run that frame, and looked to be continuing the pattern of at least one Yankee getting on board in each inning, but in the 7th the Yankees were finally put down in order. Erik Swanson followed by pitching a clean 8th. Taylor Guilbeau pitched a very, very dirty 9th, loading the bases and allowing a run to score without giving up any hits.

This is what an error, a walk, a fielder’s choice, a hit-by-pitch and another walk looks like, folks.

Seattle’s offense did almost nothing to help its pitchers. The 5th inning finally saw a double from Kyle Seager and a single from Tim Lopes, but both were stranded. Omar Narvaez doubled in the 7th inning, but the Mariners were again unable to get anything going. J.P. Crawford singled with one out in the bottom of the 9th inning, but no further damage was done and the game ended there at 7-0. In every facet of baseball, the Mariners were bad tonight and the Yankees were good. Just the sort of thing that should happen when the current best team in the American League faces the current Seattle Mariners.