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Kikuchi struggles highlight Blue Jays' need for consistency in starting rotation

TORONTO — A recent run of poor form and inability to make the necessary adjustments have seemingly left Toronto Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi's spot in the rotation on thin ice.
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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi (16) is visited at the mound during the second inning of MLB baseball action against the Houston Astros in Toronto on April 29, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

TORONTO — A recent run of poor form and inability to make the necessary adjustments have seemingly left Toronto Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi's spot in the rotation on thin ice. 

With an eight-game homestand against American League East rivals Boston and Tampa Bay compressed over seven days this week, the timing of Kikuchi's struggles is less than ideal for manager Charlie Montoyo.

The Red Sox, Blue Jays and Rays were all within one game of each other in the standings — No. 1 through No. 3 in the AL wild-card positions with division-leading New York well out in front — entering play Tuesday.

"It's a tough division and they do feel like playoff games every game because they're good teams — including us," Montoyo said.

Kikuchi worked only two innings in a 5-4 loss in Milwaukee last Saturday. The left-hander hasn't lasted beyond the fifth inning in any of his five starts this month. 

In addition, uneven performances from Jose Berrios — who has given up 14 earned runs over his last two starts — haven't helped matters for the Blue Jays.

Montoyo said pitch location is one of the key differences between the hurlers right now.

"One is throwing strikes and the other one is not," Montoyo said in a media availability before the Boston series opener at Rogers Centre. "Berrios threw strikes, he just got hit."

With an arm-taxing doubleheader against Tampa Bay looming Saturday, Montoyo needs his starters to pitch deep in games this week to give his overworked bullpen some relief.

Kevin Gausman did his skipper and the club a solid on Monday by throwing 110 pitches — a season-high for the team — over seven shutout innings in a 7-2 win over the Red Sox. 

Ross Stripling, who has shifted nicely from long relief into a rotation spot after Hyun Jin Ryu's season-ending injury, was scheduled to start Tuesday night at Rogers Centre. Staff ace Alek Manoah was tabbed for the series finale on Wednesday. 

After that, the rotation plan could get interesting for a rare five-game series with the Rays. The twin bill was needed to include a game originally scheduled for April 4. 

"We've got to add another starter this week just to cover that and these (aren't) seven-inning doubleheaders," Montoyo said. "So that's another part of the equation."

Major League Baseball returned to nine-inning doubleheader games this year after trimming them in 2020 and '21. Thomas Hatch could be in line to get a callup from Triple-A Buffalo but Montoyo said potential plans have yet to be finalized. 

Sometimes a struggling pitcher will skip a start in an attempt to reset but Montoyo can't really afford that option this week given the schedule. He said Kikuchi was still tabbed to make his regular turn in the rotation, although it's not in stone. 

When asked about a potential move to the bullpen, Montoyo said there has been no conversation on that front as of yet.

"We haven't gone there," he said. 

Kikuchi, who signed a US$36-million, three-year deal with the Blue Jays in the off-season, is 2-4 with a 5.08 earned-run average. He has issued 35 walks over 14 starts. A mid-90s fastball is one of the southpaw's main weapons but he has shied away from it of late and hitters are sitting on his other pitches. 

Berrios, meanwhile, is 5-4 with a 5.86 ERA and 20 walks over 15 starts. He's expected to be a rotation anchor for the present and the future after inking a $131-million, seven-year extension last fall.

Montoyo said that Berrios has managed to regain his consistency in the past when struggles have crept in. 

"He's got a track record of doing it and being really good," he said. "That's No. 1 for sure. So it'll be easier for Berrios to make the adjustment than Kikuchi because he's done it before."

Closer Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont., has served well in the ninth-inning role for a bullpen that has had its share of injuries. 

Primary setup man Tim Mayza recently returned after missing almost a month due to forearm inflammation. Yimi Garcia (back) and Julian Merryweather (abdominal) are two notable relievers currently on the injured list.

With the Blue Jays in win-now mode, the pitching concerns add to the pressure on general manager Ross Atkins to supplement the staff ahead of the Aug. 2 trade deadline.

The club's halfway point of the regular season arrives Monday in Oakland with the opener of a seven-game road trip. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022. 

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press