SEATTLE – Those were eight strong innings James Paxton pitched on Sunday afternoon, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was told, and he had to issue a correction.
“Actually,” McClendon said, “that’s 20 strong innings.”
Actually, he’s right.
Paxton pitched deeper into Sunday’s game at Safeco Field than he had in any of his previous 24 Major League starts, throwing eight scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox in a 5-0 Seattle victory before a crowd of 39,936.
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He commanded his fastball, which topped out at 98 miles per hour and didn’t lose any velocity throughout the game. He mixed off-speed pitches in when he had to, catcher Mike Zunino said.
And because he did, Paxton’s scoreless innings streak now sits at 20, as McClendon so deftly noted, which is the longest scoreless innings streak by a Mariners pitcher this season. The 26-year-old left-hander hasn’t allowed a run since the second inning of his start against the Los Angeles Angels on May 5.
This is the version of Paxton that McClendon has been clamoring for. All this after he posted a 6.86 ERA in his first four starts of the season.
“All it is,” Paxton said, “is attacking. He wants to see me attack and see me compete, and that’s what I’m trying to do out there.”
“Hitting is real hard,” McClendon told him. “Don’t make it easier.”
He didn’t on Sunday. Paxton allowed five hits and walked two batters, working out of jams in the third (first-and-third with two outs) and seventh (second and third with two outs) before breezing through a 1-2-3 eighth inning to assure the longest start of his career.
Apart from those two trouble spots, no Red Sox runner reached second base. The closest Boston came to scoring was on Mookie Betts’ deep fly ball into the left-field seats to lead off the eighth inning … but it landed foul by a visible margin, and that ruling withstood a replay review. Betts lined out to second baseman Robinson Cano on the next pitch.
“He wasn’t afraid to throw to contact,” said Zunino, who drove in a run with a two-out single in the second. “He got plenty of ground balls or weak pop flies. It’s one of those things – when he uses the bottom of the zone, he’s very effective.”
The Mariners (17-20) scored all they needed in the second inning against Red Sox starter Steven Wright, a knuckleballer whose quick-moving pitches defied Seattle’s batters at times. But they also defied Boston catcher Blake Swihart, whose passed ball with nobody out allowed Kyle Seager to score from third base. Zunino’s RBI single two batters later gave the Mariners a 2-0 lead.
Wright’s knuckleball, shortstop Brad Miller said, “was cutting, it was dancing. He threw a couple straight ones, even. He knew what he was doing. I think the biggest thing is just get up there and swing. Get up there and swing, swing early and try to put it in play.”
Miller did that in the fifth, when he hit his third solo home run in the last two games over the right-field fence. And Seager hit a two-run homer to right field off Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow with one out in the eighth, building a five-run margin and permitting McClendon to sit closer Fernando Rodney, who had been warming up in the bullpen, and instead bring in right-hander Carson Smith to finish the game.
Smith worked a perfect ninth to clinch a 6-3 homestand and salvage a split of this four-game series against the Red Sox. The Mariners begin a three-game series in Baltimore on Tuesday.
“That’s the one thing that’s gotten lost in all of this,” McClendon said. “We haven’t played well to this point. It seems like when we lose a game, the world’s coming to an end, but the fact is, we’re 6-3 on this homestand. I think that’s a pretty good homestand. It’s certainly something to build on, and hopefully we take that momentum to the road with us.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple