HIGH HEAT

Paxton, Walker can help Mariners’ suddenly struggling rotation

Sep 2, 2014, 4:06 PM | Updated: 4:35 pm

Mariners left-hander James Paxton owns a miniscule 1.83 ERA in 39.1 innings this season. (AP)

(AP)

It’s come full circle.

This Mariners season began with an emphasis on the importance of the rotation for Seattle’s hopes. The correlation between starting pitcher ERA and playoff berths in 2013 were striking.

2013 starter ERA

1. Dodgers: 3.13 (Playoffs)
2. Cardinals: 3.42 (Playoffs)
3. Reds: 3.43 (Playoffs)
4. Tigers: 3.44 (Playoffs)
5. Pirates: 3.50 (Playoffs)
6. Braves: 3.51 (Playoffs)
7. Nationals: 3.60
8. Mets: 3.68
9. Athletics: 3.72 (Playoffs)
10. Rays: 3.81 (Playoffs)
11. Red Sox: 3.84 (Playoffs)

It meant the Mariners had to improve on their 20th-ranked 4.18 starter ERA in 2013. Specifically, it became vital to the Mariners’ cause that the back three in their rotation pitch a great deal better than the combined 5.24 ERA in 536 innings from last season.

The 2014 Mariners emphatically answered the challenge despite key injuries. Felix Hernandez has been brilliant this season and is poised to capture his second Cy Young Award. Hisashi Iwakuma missed the first month of the season but has been great since. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton were the talk of spring, but it has been Chris Young and Roenis Elias stepping forward to solidify the back of the rotation. Young is the runaway frontrunner for American League Comeback Player of the Year and has not thrown this many innings since 2007. Elias has thrown the second-most innings of any MLB rookie this season.

Seattle’s starter ERA this season is tops in the AL and fifth best in MLB.

1. Dodgers: 3.16
2. Nationals: 3.22
3. Reds: 3.30
4. Braves: 3.36
5. Mariners: 3.39

However, as the calendar turns to September, the rotation questions have bubbled to the surface once again. Mariners starters have turned in a 7.24 ERA in their last 10 starts, allowing 37 earned runs in 46 innings. Starters have also pitched five innings or fewer in six of their past 13 turns. The rotation owned a 3.20 ERA before Aug. 18, but the recent doldrums have pumped nearly .20 points to that total in the span of two weeks.

The pitching staff is the backbone of the 2014 Mariners. Having great starting pitching is not a luxury but a requirement for this team. Seattle’s starting pitching must be solid down the stretch in order to pry this team into the postseason.

What’s the answer?

The first part of the equation is simple: Felix needs to be Felix and Iwakuma needs to be Iwakuma. They have combined to form one of the best 1-2 punches in the game the last two seasons and the Mariners need their brilliance down the stretch.

Secondly, and perhaps just as importantly, now is the time for the Mariners to lean on their two young guns. Elias is reaching his innings ceiling and Young is wandering into innings territory he has not reached in seven years.

James Paxton owns one of the most unique skillsets in the game. He’s the hardest throwing left-handed starter in MLB.

1. James Paxton, SEA: 94.7 mph
2. Chris Sale, CWS: 94.0 mph
3. Danny Duffy, KC: 93.2 mph
4. David Price, TB/DET: 93.2 mph
5. Clayton Kershaw, LAD: 93.0 mph

Paxton maintains a 1.83 ERA in 39.1 innings pitched this season. His career ERA sits at a frigid 1.71, which is the best of all-time for any pitcher with 11 or more starts to his credit. Since he has missed the majority of the season, there will be no need to limit his workload.

Walker has struggled with injury and inconsistency in 2014, but he harnessed his impressive stuff in Oakland on Monday. He commanded his mid-90s fastball and devastating split/change to hold the Athletics to one run in six innings.

Last season, the Indians leaned on their youngster, Danny Salazar, and his 2.52 September ERA in five starts to help push them into the postseason. St. Louis rode a sizzling September – 1.72 ERA in five starts – from Michael Wacha to playoff glory.

Is it the Mariners’ turn to catch lightning in a bottle with their young hurlers?

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