ST. LOUIS — Time to revive “Big Three” talk?
The Seattle Mariners’ trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen won that nickname in spring training 2012 because of expectations the pitchers would graduate to the big leagues last year.
Now, Walker and Paxton are making cases to be considered for next season’s starting rotation.
On Saturday night with 41,374 fans crammed into Busch Stadium, Paxton delivered a stellar performance, tossing six shutout innings and allowing two hits, while striking out five and walking two to lead the Seattle Mariners to a 4-1 win over the
St. Louis Cardinals, snapping a five-game losing streak.
“He was really good again today, obviously against a very good ballclub in their backyard with a big crowd in the middle of September,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Paxton. “It was nice to see him step up like that.”
Paxton has allowed one earned run in two starts and 12 innings pitched. He is the second Mariners pitcher to open his major-league career with back-to-back starts of at least six innings pitched with one or no runs allowed. Erik Hanson had back-to-back 7ª inning outings in 1988.
The 6-foot-5 Canadian was calm and anything but demonstrative, but even his catcher Mike Zunino, who had caught him at Triple-A Tacoma to start the season, had never seen Paxton quite so serene.
“I think it’s the most relaxed and the best he’s pitched since I’ve been catching him,” Zunino said.
But to Paxton that relaxed look was his laser-like focus. He was so involved with Zunino and pitching to the glove that emotions or outside factors never crept into his mind.
“I was really locked in on Zunino,” Paxton said. “I didn’t notice the crowd much. I finally noticed how many people there were after they took me out of the game. I said to someone, ‘Oh, it’s loud, I guess there are a lot of people here, huh?’ ”
Paxton was sharp from the first pitch, retiring the first eight batters he faced. The first hit he allowed came in the third from Cardinals rookie starting pitcher Michael Wacha, who hit a little dribbler to the right of the mound that Paxton couldn’t quite field.
The only other trouble Paxton got into was in the fifth. He allowed a single to David Freese and later issued a two-out walk to pinch hitter and former Mariner Rob Johnson. Finally he struck out Matt Carpenter swinging with an elevated 96 mph fastball.
“He’s able to do that because he is pitching down, down, down,” Wedge said. “When he does come up, they have to commit to it. That’s what you like to see with someone that has that type of fastball.”
Of course many Mariners starters have given stellar outings only to see their win destroyed by lack of run support or bullpen implosion. At least for one night, it was different.
After failing to get a run against Wacha with the bases loaded and one out in the third inning, Seattle picked up two runs in the fifth inning by taking advantage of Wacha’s wildness and playing a little small ball. Dustin Ackley singled to start the inning and then Wacha walked Paxton, who was trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt.
It was a massive mistake by Wacha, since the odds of Paxton, who has not swung a bat in a game since he was 13 years old, getting down a bunt were somewhere in between slim and none.
With runners on first and second base and no outs, Brad Miller put down a successful sacrifice bunt — a rare occurrence for Seattle lately — to move both runners into scoring position.
Franklin Gutierrez made the strategy pay off, lacing a first-pitch double into left field to score both runs.
“It was very important right there,” said Gutierrez, who made one of the inning-saving outs with the bases loaded in the third. “We had men in scoring position and we had to score some runs. I don’t think we have to put any more pressure on ourselves, when we put that pressure on (when) we don’t do anything. Obviously, we know we’ve been having some issues scoring runs lately.”
The two runs certainly didn’t feel safe for a Mariners team that has 12 walk-off losses on the season.
But Kendrys Morales provided a big insurance run in the eighth inning, blasting a lead-off solo homer to left-center field. His 22nd long ball of the season traveled an estimated 433 feet and you could almost hear sighs of relief from Wedge and his bullpen as the ball landed into a sea of Cardinals fans to make it 3-0.
“Any time you get one more run when you are in a tight game, it’s big for us, especially with all the young kids down in the bullpen,” Wedge said.
The Mariners gave back that run in the bottom of the inning when Charlie Furbush tossed a wild pitch by Mike Zunino to score Carpenter.
But Seattle answered in the ninth. A lead-off walk by Ackley, a bunt single from Abraham Almonte, a wild pitch advancing the runners, and a sacrifice fly from Carlos Triunfel scored Ackley.
Danny Farquhar came and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning to pick up his 14th save of the season.