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No longer a matter of if or when — James Paxton has taken the next step

James Paxton followed up a career-high 16 strikeouts last week with a no-hitter. (AP)

TORONTO – I don’t think there was much question of if James Paxton would ever throw a no-hitter. I think it was more of a question of when.

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That is perhaps taking the no-hit feat a bit too lightly, but on his best days James Paxton has been all but unhittable. And the bridge over the gap between “all but” and history may have been built in two starts.

“With his usage and his approach, if he continues that, you are going to look up and see him deeper in a game and hopefully throwing a complete game,” Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre told me shortly after Paxton’s 10-strikeout performance on April 26 against the Indians in Cleveland.

Two starts later, Paxton threw a complete game.

It was a different story for Paxton just two weeks ago. He was bounced from his start against the Rangers in the fourth inning, having thrown 96 pitches and surrendered five runs. Coming on the heels of a six-inning, one-run win against the Astros, that game against the Rangers was disappointing. Shortly afterwards, Stottlemyre had a conversation with him.

“I sat down with James and we talked about the importance of getting strike one and how it impacts the rest of the game for him,” Stottlemyre said.

Strike one puts Paxton in the driver’s seat, allowing him to better use his secondary pitches and keep him out of deeper counts where batters can foul off pitches. It also allows him to stay on the attack, which is something else Stottlemyre wanted to see from him. With his stuff, there should be no nibbling around the edges of the strike zone.

Catcher Mike Zunino has been instrumental in helping Paxton stay aggressive.

“We had an open conversation as he started to feel better, started to feel his mechanics,” Zunino said. “The next step for him, he wanted to evolve as a pitcher. Sometimes that becomes making pitches, but he needs to trust his power stuff. He came in that day and said, ‘Look, I want to attack guys, I want to trust my heater.’ These last two starts he really has and I think this has really put him on the page and the level I think we all know he can be at.”

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Since that talk, Paxton has thrown a 16-strikeout game where he dominated almost exclusively with his fastball, and a no-hitter where setting up his curveball early for later use was instrumental in getting him to the end. He has weapons, and it appears he has learned how to use them.

“It is hard to hit him,” Mariners color commentator Mike Blowers said on the 710 ESPN Seattle postgame show following the no-hitter. “The percentages are in his favor if he is ahead in the count. You are in big trouble. There were so many times tonight when Mike Zunino was sitting right in the middle of the plate. Elevate the glove, just above the mask, and let it eat. ‘Here we go. Big boy, come after it.’ Including in the ninth inning. And that would be a time where you might think, ‘Well, I am going to nibble here, and if I walk a guy I don’t care. I don’t want to lose (the no-hitter).’ It was the opposite of that, and we saw 100 (mph).”

This is the difference. This is what can elevate Paxton to the next level. This is what puts him in elite company and keeps him there. The stuff has been there for some time. It is about what Stottlemyre said it was about: the usage and the approach.

It is no longer a question of if or when. In Toronto, it appears we have seen Paxton take the final step.

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