SEATTLE – After a frustrating fourth inning Thursday in which he allowed the Cleveland Indians to score enough runs to beat him, James Paxton appeared, at least, to be settling down in the fifth.
He retired the first two batters of that inning, via a flyout to left field and a swinging strikeout, a welcome departure from the three hits and three runs the Indians scraped out against him an inning prior.
But Paxton’s next three pitches to Indians first baseman Brandon Moss missed the strike zone. Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon trotted to the mound. He brought trainer Rob Nodine with him. That is not usually good news.
It wasn’t in this instance, either. Nodine examined the fingers on Paxton’s left hand, and Paxton accompanied him back to the dugout, his underwhelming evening punctuated by an untimely departure.
So it’s no surprise that the Mariners lost this game 5-3 to the Indians and reigning Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, who surprisingly allowed home runs to Mike Zunino and Dustin Ackley but otherwise overpowered the Mariners during a seven-inning, 13-strikeout performance before a crowd of 19,449 at Safeco Field.
The Mariners (23-24) are more concerned about their own starting pitcher. The official diagnosis on Paxton was that he left the game with discomfort in the middle finger on his left hand, and he’ll be reevaluated Friday.
Paxton said after the game that it’s not a recurring issue, and not something he’s experienced before. But when he unleashed a 1-0 fastball to Moss, he “just felt a little twinge and just got kind of sore, and they didn’t want to chance it, so they took me out (of) there.”
The finger already feels better, Paxton said, adding that he has “pretty good movement in it” but that it’s “a little bit sore to the touch.”
“I just couldn’t finish off the pitch, and went high,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with it, but hopefully we’ll have more information (Friday).”
It was a much better night for Kluber. The Indians (22-25) supported him with a second-inning home run by Moss, and that fourth-inning barrage against Paxton that included singles by Moss, Jose Ramirez and Jason Kipnis, a walk to Jason Bourn, an error by shortstop Chris Taylor that allowed a run to score, and an RBI groundout by Michael Brantley.
Taylor’s error (a slow roller that Paxton also failed to field) and Ramirez’s infield single both presented opportunities for Paxton to make a play on the ball and throw the batter out at first base. But both chances went unfulfilled.
Otherwise, he thought he threw the ball OK.
“I felt like the ball was coming off pretty good. They found some holes,” he said. “I made a few mistakes there. It was unfortunate that inning before that they strung some hits together there, and I didn’t make a play on those couple balls that came to me.”
Those three runs put the Indians ahead 4-1 – the Mariners got on the board thanks to Zunino’s third-inning homer to left field – and Cleveland added another in the sixth after a double by Ramirez, a sacrifice bunt and a fielder’s choice that allowed Ramirez to score ahead of second baseman Brad Miller’s late throw to the plate.
Ackley’s unlikely two-run homer in the sixth – he entered the game hitting .179 – cut it to 5-3 and dirtied Kluber’s line a bit. But it wasn’t enough to beat the hard-throwing right-hander, whose victory in last season’s Cy Young race riled Mariners supporters who believed Felix Hernandez was more deserving.
And maybe he was. But there’s no denying that Kluber exhibited at least some Cy Young qualities on this night.
He twice struck out star slugger Nelson Cruz with two outs and runners on base. He struck out third baseman Kyle Seager three times, including an inning-ending whiff with runners on first and second in the third. He struck out the side in the fifth, struck out the first two batters of the sixth, and struck out the side again in the seventh, finishing with a 96-mile-per-hour blur that Cruz, the American League’s home run leader, couldn’t catch up to.
“Right when you think you have him, he drops another pitch on you,” said Ackley, whose homer bumped his season total to four. “He’s definitely tough. Throws hard. That’s why he won the Cy Young last year.”
Kluber threw 112 pitches, 82 of which were strikes. He’s struck out 50 batters in his last four starts, increasing his league-leading total to 96.
“I thought we had real good at-bats off a very tough pitcher,” McClendon said. “(We) certainly made the most of our at-bats. The guy’s tough as hell.”
As for Paxton (3-3, 3.70 ERA), he hopes Friday’s evaluation will quell any worry about that finger.
“Obviously, I’m not happy about it, he said. “But I’m staying positive, and I don’t think it’s going to be anything too big, hopefully. We’ll find out (Friday). Right now, it has pretty good movement. It already feels better than it did an hour ago. So hopefully by tomorrow, it’ll feel much better.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple