After Nelson Cruz was engulfed by his giddy teammates and got a Gatorade shower in the dugout, after the Seattle Mariners returned to their clubhouse and pumped up the music in celebration of a wild, improbable, you-had-to-be-there 11-10 victory, manager Lloyd McClendon couldn’t deny the obvious.
“We got lucky,” he said.
That the Mariners required some good fortune Sunday does not diminish the sense of satisfaction they took from winning a game so entertaining a video of it belongs in a time capsule. They fought back from deficits of 7-3 in the third inning and 10-5 in the eighth inning, each batter determined to work the count in the gathering shadow at home plate.
Austin Jackson’s one-out single in the ninth inning — the line drive to right tied the game, 10-10 — provided a textbook example of what hitting coaches like to call a “professional approach.”
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But Safeco Field fans should not expect to see this kind of counter punch very often. Coming back from a five-run deficit is, literally, a once-a-year occurrence: Last time the Mariners accomplished it was April 27, 2014.
Put another way, if the starting pitchers not named Felix Hernandez and J.A. Happ don’t snap out of their early-season funk, the Mariners will lose a lot more games than they will win.
James Paxton was the victim Sunday of a third inning that looks a bit worse in the box score than it did on the field. Paxton’s troubles began with a leadoff bunt single and accelerated with the throwing error of shortstop Willie Bloomquist on a tough-chance grounder.
But Paxton — facing a Texas Rangers lineup that found seven hitters beginning the afternoon with batting averages under .200 — got into a jam and was unable to throw anything resembling a swing-and-miss pitch. His fastball has lost some giddy-up since last spring, and while 90-92 MPH can be plenty fast enough, big leaguers will feast on that pitch if it doesn’t sink.
And though he was charged with only two earned runs before McClendon went to the bullpen, it was Paxton’s third poor start in three of them.
He wasn’t charged with a loss, which is one positive. Another was the resolve he showed by hanging around to take questions, more than three hours after his work was done.
When a starting pitcher fails to survive the third inning, he’s often long gone by the time the clubhouse is opened to the media. Paxton stayed, not only vowing he’d improve but indicating he had a solution.
“I’m too rotational when I let go of the ball,” the left-hander explained, referring to his tendency to face third base at the end of the delivery. “It’s a mechanical thing that’s bothered me, from time to time, throughout my career, and I think it’s why my velocity is down.”
Whether or not Paxton’s diagnosis is as simple as he makes it sound — pitching mechanics can be as mind-bending complex as, well, hitting mechanics — there was symbolic significance in his willingness to face some uncomfortable questions afterward.
On an afternoon the Mariners put together three different rallies to bail him out, Paxton remained the consummate teammate who didn’t allow his own disappointment to detract from an inspiring victory.
“A very gritty bunch,” McClendon called his club, pointing out how its roster — a blend of veterans who don’t get discouraged if their early-season numbers are down, and young players hungry to improve — is a formula for success.
“This team,” McClendon went on, “is built for greatness.”
The manager’s pride was understandable. But he knows that if Paxton doesn’t figure things out — and that if Hisashi Iwakuma (0-1, 6.55 ERA) and Taijuan Walker (0-2, 17.18 ERA) don’t rebound from some similarly frustrating starts — a team built for greatness will be undone by June.
Late-inning rallies are a blast, and perhaps an indication of some character trait consistent with valiance.
Just don’t count on many more comebacks as unforgettable as the one the Mariners accomplished Sunday. If such comebacks happened all the time, they wouldn’t be unforgettable.