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Mariners LHP Justus Sheffield
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Mariners encouraged after Justus Sheffield’s showdown vs James Paxton

Mariners starter Justus Sheffield was strong until the fifth inning against the Yankees. (Getty)

For Mariners fans, it would be understandable to glance at Wednesday’s 7-3 loss to the Yankees as just another late-season, midweek defeat in Seattle’s first season of its current rebuild.

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Oh, but there were stakes to this game. Especially for the pitcher on the mound for the Mariners.

In just his second major league start and only his sixth big league appearance overall, 23-year-old left-hander Justus Sheffield took the mound against the team that traded him as a well-regarded prospect last offseason. And the guy on the mound for the Yankees? James Paxton, who the Mariners traded to acquire Sheffield and two other prospects from New York, making his first appearance back in the building where he regularly pitched in front of his own cheering section.

To just look at Sheffield’s pitching line and dismiss it as a disappointment would be a mistake. Yes, he allowed five earned runs on six hits and didn’t make it through the fifth inning. But knowing where Sheffield has been this season and what he was facing, his outing was nothing but positive to Mariners manager Scott Servais.

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“I thought Justus Sheffield really made some strides forward today,” Servais said after the game. “That’s what excited me out there. Certainly not an easy lineup to try to get through. I thought his stuff was really good.”

Servais wasn’t just blowing smoke.

Sheffield looked great out of the gates, getting All-Stars DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge out quickly in the first inning. But trouble found him when Dee Gordon couldn’t come up with a sharp ground ball hit into the shift by Gleyber Torres, and Sheffield ended up in a battle with slugging catcher Gary Sanchez – a battle Sanchez won with a mammoth home run over the foul pole on a 3-2 count. Just like that, Sheffield and the Mariners were in a 2-0 hole.

But unlike earlier in the season when Sheffield made a one-off appearance with the Mariners and otherwise struggled at Triple-A Tacoma, he kept his composure. Sheffield struck out four in a row at one point, and through four innings had allowed just the two runs on three hits.

The Yankees did get to him in the fifth, but that inning aside, it was the best he has looked in the big leagues to this point.

“He kept his emotions (in-check),” Servais said. “I thought it was about 85 percent effort out of him today, which is exactly where we need it to be, and I think it’s only going to get better as he gets more comfortable.

Command was a big issue earlier in the year for Sheffield, which was a big reason why he ended up spending a few months with Double-A Tacoma before returning to the Mariners (the other reason being that the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, which was already hitter-friendly, has exploded offensively in 2019 with the use of the same ball used by the MLB). He finished Wednesday with no walks and showed confidence in not just his fastball but also his secondary pitches, which may have been what Servais was most happy about.

“He was behind in a few counts but he got back into the count using his slider and he threw a bunch of changeups today, which is good to see,” Servais said. “… (He) trusted his stuff.”

While it may be easy to compare the outings of Paxton and Sheffield straight-up because they were the biggest pieces of the blockbuster offseason trade between the Yankees and Mariners, Servais focused instead on the parallel of the careers of the two left-handed pitchers. Paxton blossomed into Seattle’s ace in 2017 and 2018 but not without many bumps in the road along the way. With Sheffield having impressed in spring training only to see the first half of his regular season marred by struggles, it’s easy to see what Servais was getting at.

“It’s kind of interesting, we saw Paxton early on where he was at and through his evolution and his development, and now we start with Justus Sheffield,” he said. “… I’m excited (about) what I saw out of Sheff today.”

The other side of the field

In a way, Sheffield’s outing Wednesday mirrored his 2019 season. He flashed his potential from the start, hit a snag, but regained his composure and gave reason for his team to be encouraged with what he did.

Paxton’s outing for the Yankees was also indicative of his first year in pinstripes. The Big Maple’s season, like most of his time in the big leagues, has featured moments of dominance but also injury and inconsistency. So facing a Mariners lineup mostly made up of players who weren’t MLB regulars a season ago, Paxton had a nice showing – until he didn’t.

He allowed just one hit, a two-run home run to Kyle Seager. But he only lasted five innings, due in large part to the five walks he issued, including four in the fourth inning alone. Still, he got the win because of the quality of lineup hitting behind him and the quality of lineup he faced.

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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