The Seattle Mariners celebrated “Salute to Latin America Beisbol Night” Saturday at Safeco Field, but it was a rookie pitcher from north of the American border who stole the show against the Tampa Bay Rays.
The big league debut of Lander, B.C., native James Paxton surpassed expectations.
Before a crowd of 17,773 — which included more than 100 of Paxton’s friends and family members from Lander, a Vancouver, B.C., suburb 133 miles north of Seattle — Paxton went three up, three down in the top of the first inning and never looked back during Seattle’s 6-2 win over Tampa Bay.
“Making his first start, to pitch like he did, it’s awesome,” Mariners second baseman Nick Franklin said of his former Tacoma Rainiers teammate.
Paxton’s enchanted evening concluded an anxious day that began with the heartbreaking news of his grandfather Lawrie’s
“I heard about it at 6 a.m.,” said Paxton. “I don’t know any details. I got a text from my dad. We’re a very close family, and (Lawrie) was kind of the glue.
“He’d had some heart surgeries, but he was doing OK.”
Paxton concentrated on the task at hand, he said, because he was able to “compartmentalize” the job of baseball from his personal grief.
“Before the game, I pointed to the sky. I know he was watching and trying to help me out. It’s special to get this one for him.”
Paxton is a power thrower with potential to make bats miss his 98 mph fastball. But 11 ground-ball outs enabled him to keep his pitch count in check — something he wasn’t always able to do in Tacoma.
Paxton ended up throwing 95 pitches over six innings, striking out three while allowing only one walk.
“Even when he missed the strike zone, his misses were down,” said Seattle manager Eric Wedge. “He was trying to get a feel for his breaking ball early, but those were good misses.”
Paxton’s only troublesome inning was the sixth after Ben Zobrist reached on Kyle Seager’s one-out error. Paxton got behind the Rays’ best hitter, Evan Longoria, and threw a belt-high 2-1 fastball that caromed off the left-field scoreboard for a home run.
“‘Longo’ does that to a lot of people,” said Mariners catcher Mike Zunino. “The important thing was that James hung in there and got us out of the inning.”
It didn’t hurt Paxton’s cause that Tampa Bay’s offense stumbled into Safeco Field on a trip that’s now found them scoring 25 runs in nine games.
Still, when you consider Paxton, before this season, had never pitched beyond the sixth inning in any professional game, his effort was remarkable.
“Now that young kid is good,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “He threw the ball really well; he got into a nice little groove. His fastball was really popping and he threw some good hooks in there, too.”
The Seattle bats, meanwhile, were effective against Tampa Bay rookie right-hander Chris Archer. The Mariners took a 1-0 lead on Kendrys Morales’ RBI single in the first, a 2-0 lead on Justin Smoak’s homer in the second, and a 3-0 lead on Morales’ homer in the third.
Lefty reliever Alex Torres replaced Archer, but the Seattle hitters kept finding ways to reach base — and score after they got there.
Abraham Almonte dropped a perfect squeeze bunt, ruled an infield hit, to drive home Franklin in the fifth before the Mariners broke things open in the sixth on Michael Saunders’ RBI double and Zunino’s RBI single.
Despite offensive production rare for the Mariners — everybody in the batting order reached base except Kyle Seager — the story of the night was Paxton.
“I definitely had some nerves,” he said, “but it wouldn’t be good if you didn’t feel nervous.
“I finally realized it was just another baseball game, in a nicer stadium.”john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com