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Yusei Kikuchi has a great night, bullpen, offense does not

wonder how many permutations of this headline I’m going to write this year

San Francisco Giants v Seattle Mariners
You have a day, Yusei
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Tonight’s game was an exercise in learning to celebrate individual accomplishments even when the overall result doesn’t go your way. Tonight, from a wanting to win games standpoint, was bad; but tonight, from a “wanting every player who is a long-term member of the Seattle Mariners to succeed” was better. Not perfect, obviously—otherwise they would have actually, you know, won the game—but better.

The goal tonight, per Scott Servais, was to get Yusei Kikuchi in the zone with his good velo early on, and Kikuchi answered that call immediately. He struck out the first batter he saw, Austin Slater, on 97, and two batters later left Donovan Solano staring at a slider high in the zone for a called strike three. He started off the second the same way, this time with Longoria admiring a slider for strike three, and then battled with Darin Ruf for seven pitches but eventually struck him out swinging on 96 on the inside corner.

Aside from a solo HR to the ageless Buster Posey, who ambushed a first-pitch 94 mph fastball that caught too much plate, Kikuchi was cruising until the fourth. After striking out Mike Yazstremski on a pretty curveball that dipped like your least-reliable friend when it’s time to pay the bill, Kikuchi allowed a solidly-struck base hit to Donovan Solano and then walked Evan Longoria in a 3-1 count. The eye-popping velocity of the first couple innings dissipated and things started to feel troublingly familiar for the up-and-down lefty. However, he rebounded to get the final two outs of the inning, including striking out Darin Ruf for a second time, this time with a little emotion:

It was the same story in the fifth, with Kikuchi starting off by striking out Buster Posey and getting Brandon Crawford to ground out before he gave up a double to Mauricio Dubon. Kikuchi buckled down, though, and dug in to find that mid-90s velocity he’d had earlier in the game. He struck out Austin Slater on three pitches, with a show of emotion that was as surprising as it was delightful:

The only major damage off Kikuchi came in his final inning of work, the sixth, when he gave up a ground-ball single (80 mph EV) to Donovan Solano followed by Evan Longoria taking a page out of Posey’s book and second-pitch swinging on a fastball that was a little too much towards the heart of the plate (That one was smacked, at 103 EV). That’s some bummer sequencing luck for Kikuchi, who rebounded to get the final two outs of the inning, including his tenth strikeout, getting Posey again on a beautiful changeup that made the veteran look foolish. Three runs given up on two longballs over six innings? I’ll take it.

Tonight’s Kikuchi was a free-and-easy, relaxed, confident, dominant Yusei. It was the best he’s ever looked as a Mariner, both in the raw numbers:

and in his overall demeanor:

After the game, Kikuchi said his emotions came from feeling more confidence in his pitches and being able to tap into his aggressiveness more, especially focusing on getting first pitch strikes (80% tonight!). This version of Kikuchi could make for much more enjoyable game-watching experiences this season, and a difficult decision for the front office at the end of the season. On the pod the other day I said I don’t have any problem spending John Stanton’s money, but I didn’t feel it was a good value to pick up that back half of Kikuchi’s contract given what we’ve seen so far. If this is what we see this year, though? Not only the improvements on the mound, but a pitcher who seems comfortable in his own skin, happy and confident? Sign me right up.

Kikuchi wasn’t the only Mariner looking more confident tonight. We are pleased to report the Evan White Strikeout Counter for this game is a big fat ZERO, and remains at two on the season. White had just one hit tonight, a single that scorched off the bat at 104.2 mph, but it was a big one, coming with two runners on. Those two runners were lineup stalwarts Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager, who had doubled and singled, respectively; I am no fantasy baseball expert but if your league values RBI it’s worth keeping an eye on White, the team leader in RBI this spring, as between those two (and Kyle Lewis, theoretically, when he returns) he should have runners to drive in pretty regularly, assuming he’s able to keep up this contact rate.

The Mariners’ other run came thanks to Luis Torrens, who was also pretty nifty behind the dish catching Kikuchi; Torrens again showed a real ability to get east-west balls called as strikes and had some nice blocks. Torrens also showed up at the plate with an RBI double that got the Mariners on the board in the second, the first run of the game; he drove home Jake Fraley, who also had a nice night, with a double and a walk. Breakout meme star Taylor Trammell didn’t have a great night at the plate, striking out three times (although also working a walk), but he did a good thing anyway because Taylor Trammell does one good thing per game at a minimum:

But! You will notice that three runs is not a great many runs. It is, in fact, fewer runs than were scored by the Giants tonight. You will remember, from earlier, that the Giants also had three runs, procured on two home runs. How many home runs did the Mariners have tonight, you ask? To borrow an image from the chart it was

Cats can apparently have little a runs around the outfield as a treat, but Mariners fans cannot have little a dingers.

[Extremely “and now is the time on Sprockets where we dance” voice]: And now is the time in the recap where we talk about the bullpen. Okay, let’s start with the good: Keynan Middleton worked a clean inning with a strikeout with a little extra flair:

Middleton is definitely still getting used to his new environs free from the vast sucking pit that is Angels pitching development. He led off with a walk, which is never great, but the good news here is the slider looked straight nasty at times and the velo was comfortably 94-95. Also, Nick Margevicius, with the big energy of the nicest high school junior going on a pity date to the freshman formal, came out and pitched the ninth. He was fine. Of course he was! Pitching the ninth in a 6-3 game is beneath him. Where’s a Brady Lail when you need one.

Anyway, the reason the game was mostly out of hand at that point was because in the 7th, in relief of Yusei Kikuchi and his very good game, Drew Steckenrider came out and said “hey that’s a nice cake, Yusei, maybe your best ever, mind if I shovel some gravel on top?” And not, like, nice gravel from McLendon’s. Dirty ditch gravel. Gravel that has seen things. I feel bad because I like Steckenrider and think he can be successful, but he was shaky in spring training and is clearly still getting his feel back for the zone, as evidenced by him walking two batters in this inning. He also sandwiched two strikeouts in between there! And I thought he might get out of it! At the very least I hoped he’d get lifted after that second walk. And, hindsight being 20/20 and all, but maybe he should have been?

I forgot to mention Middleton actually worked 1.1 clean innings, since he had to come out and shovel up all these gravelly cake crumbs. Anyway. Bullpens gonna bullpen, but this felt...like not particularly trying. And the Mariners were a little thin after Marco’s uncharacteristic shaky night last night, but also, this is game two? And there are so many more of them? When your starter gives you six innings of ten-strikeout, three-run ball, you should have a chance. And the offense definitely didn’t pull their weight tonight, but giving up as many runs as your offense scores all game in one inning is pretty deflating.

It’s kind of a bummer, too, because after all the excitement of Opening Night and people getting re-invested in the Mariners, tonight fell pretty flat. Eternal optimist Connor points out that, as Louis Sachar teaches us in the book Holes, the second hole is the hardest. And it’s true, the second hole does suck. But with the Mariners already in a precarious position for capturing fan interest, games like this don’t really help sell them as must-see TV. Because sometimes, the eighth hole also sucks, as does the fifteenth, and so does the thirty-ninth, and the sixty-seventh, and...

If we’re looking for hope: Eno Sarris ran a poll comparing the Mariners and Giants and the Mariners came out pretty handily ahead:

The Giants have the second-oldest roster in the bigs. The Mariners do not have that. It’s almost all Giants fans in the comments, not surprisingly, pointing out that the Giants might be old, but they have a good farm, spend money, and have Farhan Zaidi. I think those are solid points, but I also think there’s value in Seattle’s younger guys getting a chance to play, and fail, in the bigs, as they did tonight. Oh yeah, and there’s also two of the top prospects in baseball (although shoutout to the dude in the comments who says Heliot Ramos is “diet Kelenic” (?) and Marco Luciano is “infield Julio” (??????)).

The Mariners will take the field tomorrow night looking to win the rubber match against their apparently-now-rivals, before enjoying a day off on Easter Sunday, the first time I remember that happening in...ever. See you, shovels in hand, then.