The most important thing, Tacoma Rainiers manager Pat Listach said, is that left-hander James Paxton is healthy. That’s not something that could be said for significant portions of the past two seasons.
“If he’s healthy and he’s on the mound every five days,” Listach said, “that’s a big plus for the Mariners organization.”
So neither Listach or Paxton were particularly concerned that the 27-year-old’s 2016 debut lasted only four innings on Saturday night at Cheney Stadium, where the Rainiers lost 2-0 to the Albuquerque Isotopes.
Paxton, who appeared in only 13 games for Seattle last season before straining the middle finger on his left hand, took the loss after walking five batters — two in the third inning and two to begin the fourth — and allowing one run on two hits with three strikeouts.
Paxton blew through the first inning on 10 pitches, and used a 6-3 double play to cruise through the second inning, too.
When he ran into trouble, it was mostly due to his command. He walked consecutive batters with two outs in the third inning, and walked consecutive batters again in the fourth.
The Isotopes turned that opportunity into one run, driven in by third baseman Tim Smalling’s one-out safety squeeze bunt with runners on first and third. It caught the Rainiers by surprise; the runner scored from third and Smalling reached first safely.
Paxton coaxed a groundout and a tapper back to the mound to avoid further damage, but his day was done after 77 pitches, 42 of them strikes.
“It felt good,” said Paxton, who was beaten out by Nathan Karns during spring training for the No. 5 spot in the Mariners rotation. “I lost the handle a little bit there in the third and fourth innings with the walks and stuff, but I’ll be able to iron that out and get some more games under my belt and find my rhythm out there.”
The first two innings, Listach said, were impressive. Paxton said he relied mostly on his fastball, because he could tell the Isotopes batters were struggling to catch up to it. He mixed in a few changeups and curveballs.
“I think I just need a good body of work here to really get myself where I need to be,” Paxton said. “I think with some consistent starts and staying healthy, I’m going to be able to really get comfortable with my delivery.”
Tacoma (2-1) moved runners to third base in the first, second and sixth innings, but failed to capitalize against Isotopes starter Jeff Hoffman, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2014 MLB draft.
The Rainiers loaded the bases against Hoffman in the sixth, on singles by right fielder Stefen Romero and third baseman Ed Lucas and a two-out walk by catcher Rob Brantly. But Isotopes shortstop Rafael Ynoa snagged Chris Taylor’s sharp line drive to end the inning, prompting a unified groan from the 4,579 in attendance.
Hoffman departed after six innings — he allowed five hits, walked three and struck out six to earn the victory — and Albuquerque’s bullpen did not allow a Tacoma base runner to reach second in the final three frames.
“He’s got a good arm, No. 1,” Listach said of Hoffman. “He threw his breaking pitches over for strikes and located really well, and the shadows didn’t help our hitters much. It affected both sides.”
Albuquerque scored its second run in the sixth inning against Rainiers reliever Casey Coleman, who yielded a two-out double to Smalling and an RBI single to second baseman Jeff Bianchi .
Tacoma and Albuquerque will finish their season-opening four-game series with a 1:35 p.m. game on Sunday at Cheney Stadium. Right-hander Adrian Sampson is scheduled to pitch for the Rainiers, and right-hander Shane Carle will pitch for the Isotopes. The game can be heard on 850 AM.