DUNEDIN, Fla.—There are trust issues at spring training.
As in: How much faith can you really put in a performance within the ersatz construct of games that don’t mean anything, where the pressure is minimal and nobody has hit their stride yet?
Even so, Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker has been excited and impressed by what he has seen from Yusei Kikuchi, the left-hander whose debut season as a with the Jays last year can fairly be labelled a colossal disappointment, if not an outright bust: a 5.19 ERA across 1002/3 innings spanning 20 starts and 12 relief appearances.
Kikuchi’s credibility — and his battling bid for the fifth starter’s job — has been stoked in Florida, where he has posted a 1.38 ERA over 13 innings. On Friday at TD Ballpark, against the visiting Phillies, he surrendered his first two runs of the spring campaign while allowing one hit in 31/3 innings, with two walks and three strikeouts on 76 pitches.
“He’s found his slot, number one,” said Walker. That resulted from an off-season Kikuchi spent in Arizona instead of his native Japan, receiving constant advice on slot adjustments.
“The consistency has been there every time he’s thrown the ball this spring, from bullpens to games, so obviously you start to believe. There’s starting to be a little bit of a track record and a consistency to him right now that he didn’t really have last (year). So I’m very optimistic that will continue.”
Kikuchi struggled with his control early on Friday, walking the first two batters he faced before giving up an RBI double and a sacrifice fly. The 8-1 loss was hung on him, though Kikuchi cruised afterward, retiring eight of the next nine batters he faces, the only blemish another walk.
His self-confidence is surging.
“Last year, I couldn’t feel comfortable very much,” he said. “This spring, I’m able to do that. I think last year I was thinking about mechanics too much but this year I’m focusing on the hitters. Today, I wasn’t able to command very good. But, after the second inning, I was able to make adjustments.”
Back in blue
Otto Lopez, the Dominican infielder who played for Canada in the World Baseball Classic — his family spent several years in Montreal, where his father worked as a teacher — returned to the Blue Jays’ bosom with left groin soreness.
The Jays aren’t concerned, describing his ailment as a minor issue and suggesting he will only need a few days respite to “catch his breath.” The Jays’ No. 14 prospect went 5-for-17 in te WBC, with a triple and home run, while playing robust shortstop.
“He played a lot,” Jays manager John Schneider said. “He should be fine in a few days.”
Lopez, 24, was up and down with the mother ship last year, optioned three times over the final six weeks. He’s vying for the 26th spot on Toronto’s roster, which looks like a competition among Lopez, outfielder Nathan Lukes and infielder Addison Barger.
Right-hander Drew Hutchison, dealing with left oblique tightness, underwent an MRI that revealed “nothing alarming, no structural damages,” Schneider told reporters. The veteran pitcher, Toronto’s opening-day starter in 2015, is in camp on a minor-league contract. He could be among the next arms in line should a starter go down with injury … Bullpen stalwart Yimi Garcia is also back from the WBC, following the Dominican Republic’s elimination, and should pitch in the next day or two. “And just a normal ramp-up the rest of the way.” Schneider said.
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