On Monday afternoon, James Paxton got a little taste of what it’s like to be an ace. His performance was of that caliber, that’s for sure.
The Mariners’ 28-year-old left-hander dominated the visiting Houston Astros in front of a Safeco Field crowd of 44,856 in Seattle’s home opener, striking out eight and walking two over seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball. It gives Paxton now 13 straight scoreless innings to begin the season, but most importantly he served as the stopper, shutting down Houston in the Mariners’ 6-0 win as they came home from a rough seven-game road trip that culminated with a demoralizing 10-9 loss Sunday in Anaheim that a featured a blown six-run lead in the ninth inning.
“It really started with Paxton,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said of Monday’s win. “Awesome job today keeping a very good-hitting team down. Good stuff, mixed in all his pitches. Tip my hat to Pax. He was the story of the day for our club.”
Paxton, who shut out the Astros in Houston over six innings in his first start of 2017 on April 5, barely encountered trouble on Monday. An infield single accounted for the only runner to reach base on him in the first three innings, he struck out Carlos Beltran after the Astros put a pair on with two outs in the fourth inning, and he responded with a popout, strikeout and flyout after giving up two singles to open the seventh inning.
He may have encountered more bumps in the road had it not been for an adjustment early on in the game. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. mentioned to Paxton that the Astros were laying off a low curveball that gave them trouble last week, so Paxton started spotting that pitch more in the strike zone. It worked wonders.
“They were gonna force me to throw it for strikes,” Paxton said of his curve. “(Stottlemyre) told me to bring it into the strike zone, use it as a get-ahead pitch, and once I got to two strikes they had to swing at it.”
Catcher Mike Zunino said there was another pitch that was just as important as the curve to Paxton’s success Monday – a cutter that was more effective than last week in Houston that was keeping the Astros hitters honest against his high-90s fastball.
“He had a really good hold of his cutter today,” Zunino said. “Obviously he was able to throw his breaking ball for strikes, but I think that cutter was enough to get those guys off his stuff and (be) sort of that third weapon that he could show those guys.”
Paxton clearly relished the chance to play the role of ace, as he continued to show more emotion than in previous seasons on the mound – something that began in 2016 – and embraced the energy provided by the opening day crowd. He also shook off a comebacker that hit him in the foot and fielded his position well, something that has been a bit of an issue in the past.
“I felt really good today, but the crowd was great. Once we started scoring some runs, especially, they got really excited and I fed on that,” Paxton said.
There’s reason to believe Paxton wasn’t just playing ace for the day, either. He’s coming off a breakout 2016 season in which a new arm slot added several miles per hour to his fastball, and he may be on the verge of establishing himself as a front-of-the-rotation type. Servais thinks he’s well on his way.
“He has a chance to have a big year, no doubt,” Servais said. “We saw it coming together last year, and he’s continuing to ride it and he actually wants to take it to the next level. How he’s preparing, how he’s going about his work between starts, it’s outstanding, and he’s ready to take that next step.”