Poor start from Mariners’ rotation is surprising and troubling

Apr 21, 2015, 1:54 PM | Updated: 3:08 pm
Taijuan Walker has had two poor starts while James Paxton and Hisashi Ikauma have also struggled. (...
Taijuan Walker has had two poor starts while James Paxton and Hisashi Ikauma have also struggled. (AP)

A day after what was thought to be a turning point in the season, the Mariners look like a troubled team again.

When they rallied for an 11-10 win over the Rangers Sunday afternoon, you figured they were on their way to being the team that many picked to win the American League West and go to the World Series. They still might be that team. After all, manager Lloyd McClendon said he feels like the Mariners are “built for greatness.”

Drayer: McClendon is looking for better from Paxton

Unfortunately, the way things stand right now, they’re also built for failure. That sounds harsh. No one ever builds things to fail, it’s just that three of the five pitchers in the rotation are struggling. If that continues, the Mariners will “fail” to win the AL West or even make the playoffs as a wild-card team. They’ll be lucky to go 81-81.

You have to believe that Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton will turn it around. Or that two of the three will anyway.

Entering the season, most of us thought the rotation, one of the strengths of last year’s 87-75 team, would only get better with improved run support. The Mariners were 55-4 last year when they scored five or more runs, but even with Nelson Cruz and his eight home runs, they’re 3-3 this year with five or more runs.

I don’t know what to say about Walker, Tuesday night’s starter against the Astros, and Paxton. For the past few years, we’ve heard glowing stories about “The Big Three.” Walker was always considered “The Big One” followed by Paxton and Danny Hultzen, who missed last year after shoulder surgery.

The way it’s going, Hultzen – who was supposed to be the show horse in that race – might end up being the best of the three. Walker has been inexplicably bad. He goes from dominating batters in spring training to losing 12-0 to the A’s in his first start. He wasn’t much better against the Dodgers.

Over and over, we hear how he’s the most athletic player on the team. He’s got great stuff and looks terrific as he stands there on the mound. Then he throws the ball, it gets smacked around, and you wonder what in God’s name is going on with a guy who is supposed to be so talented.

But then I tell myself that he’s only 21 years old and growing pains are expected in the maturation process. Or something like that. Still, I thought he’d be the second coming of Felix, but thus far he’s been the second coming of Erasmo Ramirez, and they just got rid of him.

Sign of hope: Walker has won three games in his short career, and all came against the Astros, Tuesday night’s opponent at Safeco Field.

With Paxton, what happened to that guy who was lights out at this time last year before getting hurt? Maybe the injury he suffered in an agility drill in spring training set him back farther than we thought it would. Shannon Drayer suggested that he might be going through a dead-arm period, which could explain his lower velocity.

As you know, Paxton got shellacked in his last outing Sunday. Only an error by Willie Bloomquist spared him from inhaling all seven runs he gave up in one inning. Whatever’s going on with him, McClendon doesn’t even want to talk about it, saying “no more Paxton questions” after the first one before Monday’s game. Clearly he’s frustrated with Paxton and sees no reason why he shouldn’t be better than he’s been.

Speaking of Monday’s game, a 7-5 loss to the Astros in which the Mariners blew a 5-3 lead, Iwakuma had another so-so start, and to call it so-so is generous. McClendon was so sick of watching Iwakuma that he pulled him in the sixth inning after he’d thrown only 71 pitches.

Think about that for a second. McClendon has repeatedly expressed concern for his fatigued bullpen, but he had a quick hook for Iwakuma anyway.

Based on level of concern, I’d rate Iwakuma as the highest of the three because of his age (34) and September struggles last year. He doesn’t seem to have it anymore, and at this point I’m just hoping he’ll be good enough the rest of the year to qualify as a fifth starter.

Walker is No. 2 on my concern list because he hasn’t really done anything but flashed signs of his potential. Three wins over a subpar Houston team doesn’t cut it. His fantastic start against the Blue Jays in the heat of a playoff race suggests that he could be a No. 2 starter to Felix someday. But right now someday seems like it’s in 2020 if ever.

I’ve seen enough from Paxton to think that he’ll figure it out. There’s too much stuff there, and through three starts, he hasn’t been as bad as Walker and Iwakuma.

It would obviously help if they all straighten things out because the insurance policy, Roenis Elias, has an ERA of 8.04 in his Pacific Coast League starts and got the win Tuesday night only because Jesus Montero hit a three-run homer in a 5-4 victory over those pesky El Paso Chihuahuas.

Speaking of Montero, he’s hitting .348 for Tacoma and if Logan Morrison continues to struggle … oh, never mind, I’ll save that for another hand-wringing column if things get worse.

No starting pitcher.

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Poor start from Mariners’ rotation is surprising and troubling