TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. – Yusei Kikuchi had waited for this for far too long to not savor every last second. For seven years, the Seibu Lions left-hander had chased the shadow of his younger self, the high school phenom poised to skip right over NPB and head to the major leagues.
He endured through scandal (an incident with a past coach he wasn’t to blame for), through injury and through seasons where he could never consistently find his center. For whatever reason, everything clicked this year, and Kikuchi muscled his way into the ranks of the elite.
So after his finest season as a professional, 16 wins, 217 strikeouts and a 1.97 ERA, and pitching a shutout in his first career postseason start, coming out just wasn’t an option. He was seeing this through to the end.
“I thought about taking him out,” Lions manager Hatsuhiko Tsuji said after Kikuchi’s five-hit shutout of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Game 1 of the Pacific League Climax Series First Stage on Saturday afternoon. “He told us to let him go, so we let him stay on the mound.”
For years, other Seibu pitchers were the headliners, namely Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi, ironically the man the Eagles will send to the mound in Game 2. This year, it was Kikuchi’s turn to shoulder the pressure. That excited him, and it was that mindset that kept him on the mound (for better or worse) when the Lions, coasting with a 10-run lead, were ready to go to the bullpen.
“I was asked about being relieved after the sixth inning, but I didn’t want to leave without feeling I’d really gotten the job done,” Kikuchi said. “So even though my pitch count would go up (he threw 121 pitches when it was all said and done), I wanted to go all the way. So I could give our team some more energy.”
Kikuchi threw his fastball with good velocity and his off speed pitches kept the Eagles on their toes. The 26-year old lefty even reined in his troublesome curveball.
“I changed my mechanics with about five starts left in the season because I wasn’t locating my curve well,” he said.
The Eagles simply didn’t have an answer.
“He was different from who he was during the season, and he was nearly perfect,” said Eagles outfielder Louis Okoye.
In terms of wins and losses, he was perfect against Rakuten this season. In nine starts versus the Eagles, eight during the regular season and in the postseason opener Saturday, Kikuchi is 9-0 with a 0.72 ERA in 75 innings.
“He’s a really good pitcher,” said Rakuten outfielder Carlos Peguero. “He’s one of the best in Japan. Every time we’ve faced him, it’s been a tough, tough game. We just try to fight and try to play hard.”
The Eagles have been mostly at a loss to explain Kikuchi’s hold over them. Rakuten infielder Zelous Wheeler said there hasn’t been a major change in Kikuchi from last year to this year.
“You know what’s coming: fastball, slider, changeup,” he said. “He’s just got our number.”
He’s had everyone’s number this season.
He’s also been in the spotlight all year. At the beginning of the season Kikuchi was tabbed as the ace. During the season, MLB scouts began to flock to more of his starts, and every outing was another virtual duel with the Yomiuri Giants’ Tomoyuki Sugano in the race for the Sawamura Award.
The difference may be only that Kikuchi is beginning to live up to the lofty expectations placed upon him. He was good last season as well, but now he’s consistent on top of it.
He showed it again on Saturday afternoon, even though the offense made it very, very easy on him. Kikuchi, in turn, made it easy for the Seibu manager.
“I didn’t have to come out on the field even once today,” Tsuji joked after the game.
Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this report.