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Lions counting on Kikuchi to begin living up to potential

by Jason Coskrey

Everything was working for Yusei Kikuchi Sunday afternoon. With Golden Week having gotten under way, Kikuchi put on a show for the season-high crowd of 28,930 that filed into Seibu Dome and saw the Lions deliver a 15-1 mauling of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

It didn’t seem to matter what Kikuchi threw, because the Eagles never got a solid handle on anything he offered up.

Kikuchi’s fastball sat in the mid-to-low 140s, though he cranked it up to 147 to strike out Casey McGehee on the 96th pitch of his outing. He combined that with a biting slider, an OK change-up and so-so curve, with the end results being seven solid innings of one-run ball, seven strikeouts and four hits allowed.

“The offense gave me a big lead, so I was at ease,” Kikuchi said during his hero interview. “I was just aiming for Gin-san’s (catcher Ginjiro Sumitani) mitt.”

There aren’t always many lessons to be gleaned from a 15-1 victory, but Kikuchi’s afternoon was notable if for no other reason than it provided further evidence that he may be finally turning a corner in his young career.

He was far from perfect on Sunday, while his fastball was solid, his secondary pitches were inconsistent.

“Throwing a lot of fastballs is his style,” manager Hisanobu Watanabe told reporters Sunday, “but you have to be able to mix in some breaking pitches also.”

Kikuchi had a subpar first start this year, but has shown improvement in his subsequent outings. He seems to have settled on a preferred arm slot, and as his mechanics have come under control, he’s pitched with better — not yet great — command.

Kikuchi (3-1) has made five starts this season and in 33⅓ innings on the mound has a 1.08 ERA and 28 strikeouts, though he’s walked 12. Opponents are hitting .178 against the lefty.

The Lions have been the class of the Pacific League in the early stages of the season, and getting Kikuchi on track would go a long way toward helping them maintain their place atop the standings.

The Lions have talent with Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi, key cogs in Seibu’s 2008 Japan Series-winning team, and Kazuhisa Makita, in the starting rotation. Ryoma Nogami and Ken Togame have also gotten off to decent starts.

Kishi was this year’s Opening Day starter, while Wakui is still referred to as the ace, though more in name than performance at this point.

Makita won 13 games during his breakout 2012 season, and Watanabe, a pretty good pitcher in his own right in his heyday with the Lions, hopes it’s Kikuchi’s turn this year.

It’s easy to forget it was Kikuchi, and not Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rookie Shohei Otani, who nearly bucked the system by heading straight for the U.S. out of Iwate’s Higashi Hanamaki High School in 2009.

A high-school lefty with a heater touching 154 is naturally going to draw all sorts of attention, and Kikuchi, three years Otani’s senior, sat down with representatives from eight MLB clubs and all 12 NPB teams, before eventually entering the draft.

The Lions used their first pick on him, but shoulder problems and issues with his pitching mechanics resulted in a pair of disappointing seasons at the outset of his career.

It’s still very, very early, but Kikuchi looks as close as he’s ever been to getting himself pointed in the right direction. Teams on both sides of the Pacific saw his potential as a high schooler, and if the Lions can finally begin to coax some of it out, fans will be getting their money’s worth at Seibu Dome all year long.