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Kikuchi’s rough outing underscores Blue Jays’ vulnerability with Ryu out

TORONTO – Among the ripples created by Hyun Jin Ryu’s elbow injury and Ross Stripling’s return to the rotation lies an important question for the Toronto Blue Jays that currently has no clear answer: Who is the next man up if they need another starter?

It’s especially relevant given that the veteran lefty is seeking additional opinions after his initial diagnosis included the red-flag phrases forearm strain and elbow inflammation. The club said he’ll miss multiple weeks and if the worst-case scenario happens to play out and Ryu needs Tommy John surgery, the 58 pitches he threw Wednesday could be his last for the Blue Jays.

Reminder, that’s the worst-case scenario and let’s be careful about jumping to conclusions as the news the Blue Jays get may very well reveal a much better outcome for Ryu. Either way, though, his extended absence, be it weeks or months, creates an organizational vulnerability now that the first layer of insurance, the under-appreciated Stripling, is activated.

Back in spring training the obvious second layer was Nate Pearson, the electric-armed righty with the tantalizingly high upside. At the moment, however, he’s trying to get untracked after being derailed by mononucleosis, is only up to two innings at triple-A Buffalo and isn’t yet throwing the ball with the consistent authority necessary for him to thrive in the majors.

Perhaps that’s coming, but a lot is riding on his progress now that there’s a legit pathway for him to the big-league roster and an uncertain depth chart behind him.

Other options in the Bisons rotation include veteran innings-eater Casey Lawrence, Thomas Hatch, who’s pitched better lately after a rough start, workhorse lefty Nick Allgeyer, up-and-down righty Bowden Francis and the just-up from double-A Maximo Castillo . Anthony Kay, meanwhile, is injured and there’s no one double-A-down ready to force the issue, so temper the Ricky Tiedemann hype.

For a contender like the Blue Jays, that’s a worrisome soft spot and it shrinks the margin for error around the rest of the rotation, especially Yusei Kikuchi, who was roughed up for four runs on three homers over 4.2 innings of Friday’s 9-3 thumping from the Minnesota Twins.

The loss ended their season-high winning streak at eight games and dropped them to 12-4 in their last 16 outings.

“It was a total team effort,” manager Charlie Montoyo said of the winning streak. “I knew the moment our offense was going to go, we were going to have a chance to go on winning streaks. We did and today was the first time that everybody struggled. The pitching struggled. We didn’t really hit and that’s why we lost the game.”

Signed for $36-million over three years once the lockout ended, Kikuchi has been trending toward what the Blue Jays believed he could be since transitioning his cutter into a harder slider and making minor mechanical tweaks during an April makeover.

During a solid May, he didn’t allow more than two runs in any of his five starts and surrendered only one homer over 26.2 innings. Kyle Garlick doubled that alone Friday with a two-run shot in the first that opened the scoring and a solo drive in the third that put the Twins up 4-2. The first of Jose Miranda’s two home runs also came off Kikuchi leading off the second – right after George Springer’s 49th career leadoff homer and a Teoscar Hernandez RBI single tied the game – as Minnesota hitters put five balls in play against him at 104.5 mph or harder, plus another at 99.8.

The slate of hard contact made the Blue Jays wonder if Kikuchi was tipping his pitches – the left-hander said he and pitching coach Pete Walker discussed the possibility and Montoyo conceded that it crossed his mind – but he also struck out six batters.

“I’m not really worried about that too much. Obviously, we will go and look at film,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “But at the same time, if I were to be tipping, I feel like I would have gotten that many strikeouts. I felt like for the most part, it was more of they had a game plan and they stuck with it, maybe they were looking for certain pitches in certain counts, they got it and they executed.”

Montoyo also felt Kikuchi may have been too tight around the plate, allowing the Twins to lock in without fear of chasing, and then there’s the possibility that the league is beginning to approach him differently after his changes.

Garlick’s home runs both came on fastballs, one of them in off the plate, while Miranda hammered a slider over the wall. Kikuchi ended up leaning on his changeup/splitter more, throwing it 20 times compared to 19 for his slider, and got four of his 14 whiffs on it.

“I changed the way I attack hitters and obviously the hitters are adjusting and I feel like now it’s my turn to start adjusting again,” said Kikuchi. “For example, tonight, my changeup, I felt played pretty well. I had a good feel for that pitch, so just moving forward, being able to adjust on the fly as well.”

The shorter outing left 4.1 innings for the Blue Jays bullpen to mop up and the Twins kept slugging against them, adding on runs against Trevor Richards, Andrew Vasquez and Jeremy Beasley, while the offense went silent after Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s solo homer in the third.

There wasn’t much for a crowd of 27,753 to get hyped about.

Every starter will, of course, have rough nights and as long as it’s an aberration and not the norm for Kikuchi, no biggie.

But, more than ever, the Blue Jays need Kikuchi to settle in closer to the May version of himself than the April iteration, and for Jose Berrios to get on track Saturday, and for Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah to keep shoving, and for Stripling to throw strikes.

Because right now the padding around their rotation is gone, and depending on what the other doctors conclude about Ryu’s forearm and elbow, they may need an external addition to get it back.

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