OAKLAND, Calif. — This is what Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon had in mind when, a few weeks back, he likened a finally-healthy James Paxton to a major trade-deadline acquisition.
Paxton overmatched the Oakland A’s over seven innings Tuesday night in a 6-5 victory at the O.co Coliseum. The Mariners had a six-run lead until things got interesting in the eighth and ninth against the bullpen.
“We had it the whole time,” Paxton deadpanned. “I knew we had it.”
Maybe so, but it shouldn’t have been this tough.
The Mariners backed Paxton with a 6-0 lead by scoring twice in the third, fourth and fifth innings: Austin Jackson had a two-run single; Endy Chavez had a two-run hustle double; and Kyle Seager hit a two-run homer.
All of it came against Oakland starter Sonny Gray, who entered the game at 4-0 with a 1.10 ERA in five previous career starts against the Mariners. Gray (13-8) exited after giving up those six runs in five innings.
“He’s tough,” Seager insisted. “He’s definitely one of those guys where you know you’ve got your hands full. He mixes it up real well, and he locates real well.”
Usually. Not this time.
And six runs seemed plenty as Paxton (5-1) carried a three-hit shutout into the eighth before the A’s stirred to life. Derek Norris led off with a single, and Nate Freiman followed with a walk.
Geovany Soto’s double-play grounder gave Paxton a chance to get out of the inning, but another walk prompted McClendon to go to the bullpen for Yoervis Medina with runners at first and third.
That didn’t go well at all.
The A’s countered by sending up just-acquired Adam Dunn, who lined an RBI single into right.
A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third before Craig Gentry rocked a drive over the head of left fielder Dustin Ackley. The ball hopped the wall for a two-run double, and a six-run lead was down to 6-3.
Medina finally ended the inning by striking out Jed Lowrie.
Fernando Rodney got two strikeouts to start the ninth inning before surrendering three straight doubles. That produced two runs and put the tying run at second before Josh Reddick grounded out.
Finally, Rodney had his 40th save, and the Mariners, at 74-63, remained 1 1/2 games behind Detroit in the chase for the American League’s final wild-card berth.
Two runs in the eighth were charged to Paxton and blemished an otherwise superb 92-pitch effort. He faced the minimum through six innings and pitched around a single in the seventh before weakening in the eighth.
“I was just going right after them with fastballs,” he said. “They weren’t making the adjustments. They were hitting ground balls, and hitting it right at guys, so I just kept on pounding away. They got themselves out.”
C.B. Bucknor’s consistent-but-low strike zone helped.
“You beat the ball right in the ground every time,” Norris said. “There's nothing you can do with 97 and below your knees.”
Paxton opened the season with two victories over the Angels before a strained back muscle and some shoulder irritation put him on the shelf for nearly four months before he returned in early August.
In effect, his return provided the Mariners with a fresh power arm for their stretch run. Paxton’s ERA actually climbed Tuesday from 1.83 to 1.91.
“He’s our glue,” McClendon said. “This young man has greatness written all over him. He’s just got to stay healthy. I thought it was a dominating performance.”
It just got a little dicey at the end.
“Hey, we got the job done,” Seager said. “That’s what it’s all about. We know the way our bullpen has been all year. We know if you give them a lead late in the game, you’re not stressed about it.”
Not even a little?