What was shaping up to be the best start Yusei Kikuchi’s young career took a turn in the seventh inning, but it wasn’t because the Seattle Mariners rookie left-hander lost any of the sharpness that helped him retire 17 of the first 20 batters he faced. Instead, what turned a quality start into Seattle’s seventh loss in eight games was the spotty defense that has cost the club so many times this season.
Hanging onto a one-run lead he maintained throughout the bulk of his outing, Kikuchi allowed a leadoff double to Oakland’s Matt Olson in the seventh. A soft single by Khris Davis followed, which should have set the A’s up with runners at the corners with no outs, and put the Mariners in position for a possible double play.
But, some of the same problems that have nagged at Seattle all season crept up again on that Davis single, which eluded Domingo Santana’s glove on the ground in right. Olson, who was initially held up at third, hustled home as Santana grabbed for the ball, and scored on the fielding error to tie the game.
Davis wound up at second on Santana’s errant throw, which skipped past catcher Tom Murphy and resulted in another error, and later pushed across the go-ahead run on a Ramon Laureano sacrifice fly to left. The A’s shut the Mariners out over the final three frames to snatch away an eventual 5-2 win Friday night at T-Mobile Park.
Santana had played relatively clean defense since making the switch from left field to right in early June, but the two crucial errors he committed in the decisive seventh brought his season total to 12, which leads all outfielders in baseball. His two blunders ticked Seattle’s errors total up to 90 — which is 25 more than any other team in the majors this season.
“Certainly the error in right field kind of messed up the inning,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It would have been first and third nobody out. Instead they got a run in and now a man on second. So, that definitely affected the outcome of that inning.”
Kikuchi was brilliant through the first six frames, his only mistake coming on a low slider that Franklin Barreto pulled over the left field fence for a home run that tied the game at 1-1 in the third. He retired 10 consecutive batters after the home run, and didn’t allow another hit until the sixth. Matt Chapman singled on a sharp liner down the third base line with two outs, but was called out trying to stretch it into a double when left fielder Mac Williamson whipped the ball to Dee Gordon at second to retire the side.
“Yusei threw the ball really well,” Servais said. “He had good stuff as far as the velocity and the break on his pitches. What was impressive to me was I thought it was the best sequencing of his pitches that we’d seen really all year. He mixed in some really effective changeups. That’s becoming another real pitch for him, which is great to see.
“He was very efficient getting after them. You saw a lot of fly balls and easy plays for our guys there, and really controlling the counts. ... Unfortunately we didn’t do enough offensively to really give him a chance to win the ball game, which is disappointing there.”
Murphy, who was catching Kikuchi for the first time this season, said the flow of the game dictated what pitches to use where, and the sequencing allowed Kikuchi to be aggressive against the A’s hitters and work at an effective pace. Kikuchi said, through interpreter Justin Novak, he’s felt better on the mound his past few outings after a rocky stretch.
“When I pitched in Houston, I was feeling good and I had a lot of good balance in my delivery, so I wanted to carry that over to this game today,” Kikuchi said. “Even before the game I was really confident in my stuff going in.”
He looked that way on the mound, mixing in a changup he’s tried to incorporate more with his fastball and slider.
“The sequencing is really important,” Servais said. “That’s the game within the game, and I think the pitcher-catcher relationship and how that works, and having a feel for what’s working that particular night is so important. ... He was ahead in the count most of the night with a lot of really good fastballs, so a good outing for Yusei. Nice to see that, and look forward to a lot more of those after the All-Star break.”
The A’s squeezed 18 pitches out of Kikuchi in the decisive seventh, pushing his total to 95 for the night. His outing ended there, and he left the game trailing and recorded the loss, but not before he struck out Chad Pinder on three pitches to end the frustrating frame.
Kikuchi allowed the three runs (two earned) on four hits while walking one and striking out five. It was the third time in 18 true starts this season he’s pitched seven complete innings.
“I feel like he can have one of those days any day,” Murphy said.
Anthony Bass worked a scoreless inning in relief in the eighth to keep the Mariners in reach, striking out two, but Oakland jumped on Dan Altavilla in the ninth to put the game out of reach. Altavilla issued one-out walks to Davis and Mark Canha. Laureano then grounded to short, but inched out what would have been an inning-ending double play, was called safe at first, and the play was upheld on video review. Pinch hitting for Pinder, Robbie Grossman then knocked a double over a leaping Santana in right, scoring two more runs to give the A’s a comfortable three-run cushion.
Tim Beckham singled for Seattle in the seventh, and advanced on a passed ball, but was the only Mariners batter to reach base after the A’s took the lead.
Mallex Smith opened the first for the Mariners by beating out a choppy infield grounder for a single. He then left too early attempting to steal on Oakland starter Brett Anderson, but the pickoff try was unsuccessful, Olson’s throw to second was wide, and Smith advanced to third as the ball bounced into the grass. He was awarded his 23rd stolen base of the season, which ranks second in the majors.
With Smith suddenly in scoring position, J.P. Crawford lifted a sacrifice fly into right, giving the Mariners a rare early lead at 1-0 that wasn’t equalized until Barreto’s homer in the third.
Murphy broke that 1-1 tie in the fifth, hammering a solo homer 397 feet to right center. It was his ninth of the season.