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As trade chatter grows, Kikuchi dazzles with 13 K’s



As trade chatter grows, Kikuchi dazzles with 13 K’s

SAN FRANCISCO — With all eyes on Yusei Kikuchi, he put on a show.

The Blue Jays just hope everyone turned that show off the moment he left the mound.

Kikuchi struck out a career-high 13 batters and didn’t walk a soul, and the Blue Jays still lost, 4-3, on a walk-off wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth. None of this adds up, but neither do the emotions of watching Kikuchi put on a performance like this in what could be one of his final starts with the Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays are now 41-50, tumbling to 9 1/2 games out of the final Wild Card spot and barreling toward selling at the Trade Deadline. Kikuchi should have three starts between now and July 30, and while the past six weeks haven’t been his finest, moments like this remind everyone watching what Kikuchi is capable of. Contenders need to determine how they value Kikuchi, whether that’s as a depth starter or someone with enough upside to make an impact in the postseason for them. As these losses pile up, those talks will only grow louder.

“Me personally, I don’t look at social media or the news out there about myself,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “All I do is get ready for my next start, which is the D-backs. I’m just looking forward to that and I’ll make sure I prepare for that game.”

After Kikuchi’s last outing, he called this a “difficult time.” Regardless of what the screen-time report says on his iPhone at the end of each week, Kikuchi understands how this game works. He knows what the rest of baseball knows, which is that he’s in the final year of his three-year, $36 million deal and one of the most obvious candidates on this roster to be dealt.

These are uncomfortable days — particularly for players with families who have set up lives in Toronto — and the Blue Jays are navigating that as much as they’re navigating their opponents. From the top down, this is a fine balance.

“I try not to bring it up,” manager John Schneider said. “You have to focus on the game each night and everyone gets this time of year. No matter what your record is, good, bad or indifferent, everyone gets it. We’ve talked in smaller groups with some of the guys, but you just have to find ways to focus on the game and focus on playing. That’s easier said than done sometimes. The more you talk about it, the easier it is to fall back on that and say, ‘OK, I’m not really locked in.’”

Well, 13 strikeouts is one way to show you’re not letting the noise in.

Even if the Blue Jays had held on to win, though, there would be a “but.” Even if Trevor Richards’ wild pitch with a runner on third had stayed in front of Danny Jansen, even if Ernie Clement’s three-run shot was enough, there would be an awkward balance between celebrating one of Kikuchi’s best starts with the Blue Jays while knowing it only makes him more attractive to contenders. This is the spot the Blue Jays have put themselves in, where not even the good days can feel pure.

Regardless of where Kikuchi wakes up the morning of July 31, he’s on the right track again. Since his ugly debut with the Blue Jays in 2022, Kikuchi has built a foundation that allowed him to land counterpunches instead of retreating when something goes wrong.

“In June, what led to my downfall was my focus on trying to throw strikes,” Kikuchi explained. “A lot of my pitches, especially my heater, were in the middle of the zone. Starting with that Yankees game, I focused on throwing all of my pitches and executing where I’d throw my fastball, whether it’s up or down. Since then, it’s really helped.”

There’s still such confidence in Kikuchi’s game. It shows on the mound as he pirouettes out of pitches, his personality spilling out more and more. It even shows in the smallest ways around the clubhouse, how he walks, how he talks, how he interacts with teammates.

In another reality, a night like this could be more gasoline on the fire, thrusting a Blue Jays team forward in the postseason race. The Blue Jays live in a different reality now, though, and the closer we get to July 30, the more eyes will be on Kikuchi, especially if he keeps pitching like this.

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