TORONTO — Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi has been able to shift his focus while on the mound this season. The results were evident Saturday in a 5-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Kikuchi had nine strikeouts over six strong innings as the Blue Jays won for the ninth time in 11 games.
“Last year I started to think a little bit too much on the mound,” he said via interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “But this year I’m enjoying the mind games that I have with the batters at the plate.”
Kikuchi, who struggled to a 6-7 mark last season with a 5.19 earned-run average, had a strong spring and has pitched well in two of three starts this year.
Perhaps baseball’s new pitch clock has helped. There’s little time to think about what might be going wrong.
Kikuchi was able to concentrate on attacking the zone Saturday while keeping the Rays guessing. The left-hander allowed four hits and one earned run.
“A confident pitcher is a dangerous thing,” said Blue Jays manager John Schneider. “That’s what he is right now.”
Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk had two hits apiece for the Blue Jays in front of a sellout crowd of 41,679 on a sunny afternoon at Rogers Centre.
The only hiccup for Kikuchi (2-0) was a fourth-inning solo shot by Taylor Walls. The Rays have dropped two in a row after winning 13 straight to open the season.
“We hate losing probably more than we like winning,” Walls said.
Toronto relievers Erik Swanson, Adam Cimber and Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., threw an inning apiece. Romano gave up three singles before locking down his sixth save of the year.
Romano was hit with a comebacker and laboured to throw the ball to first base to end the game. Schneider called it a contusion in the right rib area, adding the closer was OK and moving around well.
“A good ol’ Canadian boy, he’s tough,” he said. “So he’s feeling all right. We’ll check him out and see how he’s feeling tomorrow.”
The Blue Jays (10-5) will go for the three-game sweep on Sunday afternoon.
Toronto was rewarded for its aggressiveness on the basepaths in the third inning. Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer pulled off a double-steal and the former came home on a Bo Bichette groundout.
The Blue Jays’ outfielders delivered some standout plays to keep Tampa’s offence in check in the early going.
Springer made a nice catch on the warning track in right field in the first inning and Daulton Varsho made a diving snag in shallow left field in the fourth.
Walls turned on the next pitch after the Varsho catch for his first homer of the year to tie the game at one.
Kikuchi, who trimmed his earned-run average to 4.70 from 6.75, reached 96 m.p.h. on the radar gun and threw 67 of his 94 pitches for strikes.
Jansen said Kikuchi mixed in a few curveballs and had his slider, splitter and fastball working nicely.
“He’s got electric stuff,” he said. “He’s obviously confident, too. So keep building off it. It was really fun to catch him.”
The Blue Jays regained the lead with two runs in the fourth inning. Whit Merrifield drove in Kirk with a double and scored on a Jansen single.
Tampa Bay reliever Josh Fleming gifted Toronto a run in the sixth as he issued four walks (one intentional). A free pass to Springer brought Matt Chapman home to make it 4-1.
Toronto tacked on an insurance run in the next frame when Kirk singled to score Varsho.
The Rays (13-2) scratched out a run in the eighth but Toronto first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. prevented anything further. He made a nice swipe tag on Harold Ramirez after a hurried throw from Merrifield at second base.
Rays starter Calvin Faucher worked 2 2/3 innings, striking out two while allowing one earned run, two hits and a walk.
Trevor Kelley (0-1), who pitched two innings, shouldered the loss in a game took two hours 34 minutes to play.
Schneider said right-hander Jose Berrios was a “little sore” Saturday after taking a comebacker off his leg a night earlier.
Berrios did not return for the sixth inning in Toronto’s 6-3 win on Friday due to bruising in the left knee area. He’s not expected to miss his next start.
“(He) feels better today,” Schneider said before the game. “Dodged a bullet.”
All players, coaches and managers wore No. 42 jerseys for Jackie Robinson Day.
Saturday was the 76th anniversary of Robinson breaking the colour line in Major League Baseball.
The Blue Jays have tabbed ace Alek Manoah (1-0, 4.91 earned-run average) for the series finale. The Rays were expected to counter with left-hander Shane McClanahan (3-0, 1.59).
Toronto returns to the road next week with three-game series against the Houston Astros and New York Yankees.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2023.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press