Sports

Mariners will activate their Kikuchi plan on Friday; Sheffield to make his debut in relief

Rainiers’ Justus Sheffield pitches in the first inning. The Tacoma Rainers played the Albuquerque Isotopes in a baseball game at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., on Friday, April 12, 2019.
Rainiers’ Justus Sheffield pitches in the first inning. The Tacoma Rainers played the Albuquerque Isotopes in a baseball game at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Wash., on Friday, April 12, 2019. joshua.bessex@gateline.com

The Yusei Kikuchi pitching plan will be put into action Friday night at T-Mobile Park. Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais detailed it early on in spring training, but this is the first time the club will try it.

Instead of making his regularly scheduled start, the 27-year-old left-hander will make an abbreviated one, likely pitching just one inning against the Texas Rangers.

Servais has estimated Kikuchi will make this sort of short start about every fifth time to preserve his arm throughout the season. In Japan, pitchers typically start once a week, allowing a much longer resting period than starters are given in the majors, where pitchers generally pitch every five days.

Friday’s game will be the seventh Kikuchi (1-1, 4.68 ERA) has started, though he had a longer stint to rest after his MLB debut, which was March 21 during Seattle’s Tokyo series against Oakland. He made his second start against Boston eight days later in Seattle.

“It’s just a way to allow him to pull back, recharge the batteries a little bit and keep an extended life in those batteries as the season goes on,” Servais said.

Servais said Kikuchi was made aware of the plan when the Mariners first acquired him as a free agent in January.

“He knew that was the plan coming in,” Servais said. “We talked about it when we were negotiating his contract and trying to sign him, that this was an idea we thought we would have to keep him healthy as he kind of goes through the process of adjusting to the game here. He was not surprised by it at all.”

Kikuchi will still go through the same pregame routine he would on a normal start day, Servais said, but will likely just toss the one inning.

“I’ve told him, ‘Get ready for your start like you’re going to go out and throw 95 pitches, you’re just not going to,’ ” Servais said. “ ‘You don’t have to try any harder. You’re going to go through your pregame meeting just like you would always go through.’ Hopefully he throws a good inning.”

When Kikuchi is pulled after his inning of work, the Mariners plan to turn to top prospect Justus Sheffield, currently with Triple-A Tacoma, to pitch the next several innings.

No official transactions to bring Sheffield to Seattle were made as of Thursday evening, but Servais has indicated he will act as Kikuchi’s replacement.

“The biggest thing with Justus is come in — throw strikes, go right after them,” Servais said. “The catcher will have the game plan, and how we’re going to attack them, so really stay with the catcher and go from there.

“That’s what I would tell any young pitcher making his first start or first appearance with a new club — simplify it, trust your stuff.”

Sheffield, a 22-year-old left-hander who was acquired from the New York Yankees in the James Paxton deal in November, is 0-1 with a 3.93 ERA in four games with Tacoma.

With the Rainiers on Monday, he pitched in a similar scenario to the one he will appear in Friday. Tacoma had Matt Tenuta act as an opener, and Sheffield came in from the bullpen to toss three innings, allowing one run on two hits while walking three and striking out two.

“Sheff has had experience coming out of the bullpen before,” Rainiers manager Daren Brown said, noting the three games Sheffield pitched in relief for the Yankees late last season. “We just try to do what’s best, put him in any position he might be in (with Seattle), and wait and see from there.”

After a pair of shaky starts with Tacoma early, Sheffield has fared better in his past two appearances, allowing just three earned runs on five hits in 9 2/3 innings of work.

“I think the first two starts he was just trying to do too much,” Rainiers pitching coach Lance Painter said. “I think he was trying to overly impress. He knows who he was traded for, and I think he wanted to show people, ‘This is what you’re getting for Paxton.’

“We’ve tried to just get him to calm down his delivery. When you watch it, and he’s under control, the delivery is actually pretty good. He just gets in trouble when he tries to do too much. We’ve been doing a lot of drills on just getting him to feel the connection between his body and his arm.”

Sheffield said he was leaking off of the mound in his first two starts, trying to go through his pitching motion too quickly, which caused his pitches to sail too far up in the zone. His walk to strikeout ratio is 14-11 through four games with the Rainiers.

“I’m just trying to stay over the rubber a little bit longer, and that seemed to help with the command of my fastball,” he said. “I’m still not completely happy with the walks. They’re a little high — higher than I would want them to be right now.

“But, I still feel like my rhythm is good and I’m headed in the right direction, so I’ve just got to keep with it and keep going.”

Since making an effort to slow his delivery, Sheffield said he’s felt less antsy, and has been able to settle in well, and the Rainiers have noticed.

“The stuff is definitely really good quality stuff,” Painter said. “I think one of the things he brings to the table is that he’s a very good competitor, and if he loses his way a little bit, I think he finds a way to get it back. We’re just trying to give him a little bit of help to get himself back under control.”

NEW ARMS

The Mariners have acquired a pair of pitchers this week, including right-hander Mike Wright, whose addition will fill the 40-man roster.

Servais said the timetable on Wright’s arrival — he was acquired from Baltimore on Wednesday in exchange for minor league infielder Ryne Ogren — has not been finalized. He thought Wright would likely join the club Friday or Saturday.

Wright, 29, was designated for assignment by the Orioles on Sunday. He is 0-1 with a 9.45 ERA in 10 relief appearances this season, and has allowed 14 earned runs across 13 1/3 innings.

He appeared on a part-time basis with Baltimore from 2015-19, and has a career record of 10-12 with a 5.95 ERA with 192 strikeouts and 94 walks in 101 appearances.

“Just going off scouting reports, he’s got a good arm,” Servais said. “Sometimes when you put a different uniform on … get in a different environment, guys sometimes can flourish.”

The Mariners have seen right-handed relievers Brandon Brennan and Connor Sadzeck benefit early on from starting fresh in Seattle.

Servais said the Mariners made a commitment before the season to be open to looking for new talent to add to the bullpen as the season progresses.

“Sometimes the audition isn’t that long,” Servais said. “You don’t get a whole year. Sometimes you get a couple weeks or a month and you see what you got and which guys can adapt and make some changes. I’m curious to see what Mike Wright brings.”

Seattle also signed left-hander Jon Niese to a minor league contract Thursday. The 32-year-old has spent most of his MLB career with the New York Mets, debuting there in 2005, but has not pitched in the majors since 2016. He will report to Tacoma.

DAYS OFF

Jay Bruce was held out of Seattle’s starting lineup for the fourth consecutive game Thursday night, still regrouping from a sore quad.

Bruce hasn’t started since appearing in right field during Saturday’s win over the Angels, though he pinch hit for Dylan Moore on Sunday in Anaheim.

Servais isn’t overly concerned about Bruce, but said the Mariners didn’t want to rush him back. He was available on an as-needed basis for Thursday night’s opener against Texas.

“(Wednesday) I thought he said he was about 80 percent,” Servais said. “I want to get him 100 percent. I don’t want to play him for two days, and then all the sudden have a setback or anything like that.”

Center fielder Mallex Smith, who hasn’t recorded a hit in his past five games, was also given the night off against the Rangers. Smith is just 3 for 37 (.081) in his past 11 games, and is hitting .182 this season — the lowest of any Mariners player who has appeared in at least 20 games.

“When he gets going at the top of our lineup, or anywhere in our lineup, it really helps us,” Servais said. “He has been struggling, and he knows it. Trying to get some timing back, and I know he’s putting some time in with (hitting coach) Tim Laker and the guys, so hopefully he gets it back going again.”

With Smith out, Mitch Haniger moved to center, Domingo Santana to right, and Moore made his first start of the season in left.

Moore, Seattle’s super utility player, has now appeared at designated hitter, second, third, shortstop and left for the Mariners. This was his ninth start of the season.

“I want to get his bat in there and try to get him going a little bit,” Servais said. “There’s a left-hander, young kid from Triple-A today for (Texas). So we thought we’d give it a shot.”

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.
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