In a Mariners season of long shots starting to cash in, no one hears ka-ching louder than Yusei Kikuchi.
His selection Sunday to his first MLB All-Star Game came in his contract year following three mediocre seasons. Until April, Kikuchi’s deal, worth up $56 million, was shaping up as one of the bigger financial busts for club with a robust history of such misdeeds.
Finally, the decision is being validated. Not only is Kikuchi the staff ace, he’s one of the most dominant lefty starters in baseball.
In 93 innings over 15 starts, Kikuchi is 6-3 with a 3.18 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 31 walks. Of those starts, 11 have been six-plus innings and three runs or fewer allowed. That’s as many quality starts among lefties as anyone in baseball.
In his past 11 starts, he’s 6-2 with a 2.33 ERA, 22 walks and 73 strikeouts in 70 innings, holding opponents to a .173 batting average, lowest in the American League.
“I’m extremely happy, just very happy to hear this news,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “More importantly, I just feel really thankful for my teammates, coaches and everyone being there for me,. And my family just always supporting me through the ups and downs, especially my first two years here.”
The Mariners can pick up an option after this season that will give Kikuchi, 30, another four years at a total of $66 million. As top-end pitcher salaries go these days, it’s a bargain, health willing.
Since every team gets represented in the All-Star game, Kikuchi’s selection eclipsed J.P. Crawford, easily the Mariners’ best offensive player through the first half, as well as a solid defender. He was beaten out at shortstop by Boston’s Xander Bogaerts and Houston’s Carlos Correa.
But Kikuchi, the 14th Japanese-born (and fifth Mariner) player selected to an All-Star Game, has put in so much work to smooth his mechanics and aid his command, the selection was a fitting reward for long toil.
“Yusei is always trying to get better,” manager Scott Servais said. “That’s kind of been our theme around here the last couple years: ‘Doesn’t matter, get better.’ He’s got a ton of confidence. He knows he’s a part of our ballclub going forward. Now he really is the leader of our staff and every time he goes out there, he’s expected to go deep and win the ballgame.”
Given the pitching staff’s litany of injuries and a COVID-19 episode, starters going deeper has been an important contribution to the Mariners’ unexpectedly competitive season, which improved to 45-40 Sunday with a 4-1 victory (box) over Texas, giving Seattle its fifth series win in the past six (5-0-1). This time it was Chris Flexen providing six innings, allowing one run on four hits with five strikeouts and no walks.
Going back to the expectations of April, if you wagered a parlay that tied Flexen, who spent last season pitching in Korea, as the mid-season wins leader (seven) to Kikuchi as the All-Star rep, you would have the down payment on that beachfront home in the San Juan Islands you had been thinking about.
If you then tied the wager to journeyman reliever Hector Santiago being designated as MLB’s Most Wanted in its latest cheating scandal, you could pay for the house in cash.
His perverse saga is the flip side to the good pitching news.
Not only is he appealing a potential 10-game suspension by MLB for allegedly having an illegal substance in his glove in the June 27 game in Chicago, he was messed with by the umpires before and after an eighth-inning stint in Saturday’s 7-3 win over the Rangers.
Santiago, a 10-year veteran of 267 major league games with five teams who joined the Mariners May 27 on a minor-league contract, engaged in a little passive-aggressive theater when he removed from the mound the rosin bag before pitching. That was a shot at the crew that claimed the sticky stuff it discovered was something more than what he said it was: A glob of rosin and sweat. The umps were not amused, talking with him, returning the bag to the mound and giving him another frisk.
After the inning, he was accosted again. This time, the umps claimed his replacement glove — they confiscated his original leather, supposedly for a forensics check by MLB that never happened — was a gray color disallowed by baseball.
“(The umpire) said he was 100% sure that it was a gray glove,” Servais said. “And I said, no, it’s a black glove that’s been in the league for a long time. And he said, well, that’s not going to work.”
The discussion was rendered moot when the Mariners took the lead in the eighth and Servais went to another reliever. But making up an excuse of glove color in order to harass Santiago again was purely spite. Servais was pissed, but tried hard to check himself to avoid a fine.
“What’s the best way for me to answer this?” he said. “Life’s not fair. It’s just the world we live in right now — the heightened awareness, and players getting checked. We feel that we have been wronged by what has happened with Hector.
“I think Hector is dealing with it very appropriately. I did not have an issue last night with him escorting the rosin bag off of the mound, so there was not going to be any questions there. I thought he was very professional. The highlight for me is he pitched really good.”
It’s clear that the the umpires, the commissioner’s office, or both, are making an example of Santiago, no matter the outcome of his appeal. It’s the sort of insipidness that is another hallmark of a regime that willingly alters the rules of the game in mid-season instead of at the beginning.
Baseball fans probably should be grateful that Commissioner Rob Manfred chose a career in baseball instead of, say, air traffic control. Nobody wants the plane to pull up abruptly because the tower didn’t like the color of the landing lights.