TORONTO — It didn’t need to be this difficult, but the Mariners spent much of Friday night squandering scoring chances. So they needed a big-time effort from James Paxton and the bullpen.
Paxton and the bullpen delivered on demand in a 2-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in the opener to a three-game weekend series at the Rogers Centre.
After his previous start, a loss to Houston, Paxton vowed to stop trying to be a “crafty lefty” and return to being a power pitcher. The result was one run, three hits and nine strikeouts in seven innings
“That was it,” he said. “I was just raring back and letting it rip. I wasn’t trying to be too cute on the corners or be too crafty. Just go right after them and attack.”
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Paxton also flashed a dominant curveball and an elevated cutter after some sessions with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr.
“The breaking ball was the best it’s been,” Paxton said. “I was staying on top of the ball. Before this start, I was creeping down a little bit and becoming too side-arm.
“It wasn’t allowing me to get on top of the curveball. … I used the fastball up to get (the hitters looking) up and down a little bit.”
For all that, this was tense affair until the last pitch, when Steve Cishek struck out ex-Mariner Michael Saunders with runners at first and second. Saunders earlier hit a homer that was Toronto’s only run.
The Mariners let the Blue Jays hang around by going 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position. Seattle stranded 10 runners, and each batter in the lineup stranded at least one.
“We’ve had a few of those games this year,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said, “where we don’t separate ourselves and pick up those extra runs. A couple of times this year, it’s come back to haunt us.
“Tonight, our pitching was just outstanding. We had enough to get it done tonight.”
Paxton (3-4) handed a 2-1 lead to rookie reliever Edwin Diaz, who worked a one-two-three eighth inning with two strikeouts. Cishek closed out the victory for his 23rd save in 28 chances.
The victory boosted the Mariners to 49-47, which put them two games above .500 for the first time since July 5. They pulled to within 5 1/2 games of first-place Texas in the American League West.
The Mariners trailed the Rangers by 11 1/2 games on the morning of June 30. They haven’t been within 5 1/2 games of first since June 14. They can thank Paxton and the bullpen.
“Paxton was great tonight,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “Great arm. He can do that to you. He was that good.”
Toronto right-hander Marco Estrada, an All-Star selection, returned from the disabled list and made his first start since July 2. He careened from one jam to another, but limited the Mariners to two runs in six innings.
“He kind of gets you in-between pitches,” third baseman Kyle Seager said. “There’s not a lot in the middle of the plate. He got out of some jams there because he threw the ball well.”
Nori Aoki opened the game with a triple into the right-center gap, and Estrada (5-4) hit Seth Smith with the next pitch.
Robinson Cano hit what should have been a double-play grounder to short, but second baseman Devon Travis mishandled the ball on the exchange, and the Blue Jays settled for a force at second. Aoki scored for a 1-0 lead.
Toronto pulled even in the second inning when Saunders, in his first career at-bat against his former club, broke an 0-for-13 skid by driving a one-out homer over the left-center wall.
The Mariners missed a chance to regain the lead after Aoki started the third inning with a double past third.
Aoki moved to third on Smith’s grounder but Cano, with the infield playing back, fouled out to third before Nelson Cruz ended the threat by popping out to second.
The Mariners wasted Adam Lind’s one-out double in the fourth when Leonys Martin struck out and Mike Zunino flied out to center field.
But they broke through in the fifth inning after Shawn O’Malley led off with a single and, with one out, stole second base. Smith then sliced a slow grounder past third for an RBI double and a 2-1 lead.
The Mariners let Estrada off the hook in the sixth inning. After Seager led off with a single, the Mariners loaded the bases with one out when Martin walked and Zunino was hit by a pitch.
Estrada stranded all three runners by striking out O’Malley and retiring Aoki on a fly to center.
Paxton retired 12 in a row after Saunders’ homer before giving up a one-out walk in the sixth to Josh Thole. A two-out double by Josh Donaldson put runners at second and third, but Paxton struck out Edwin Encarnacion.
PLAY OF THE GAME: After Josh Donaldson questioned a called strike with two outs in the sixth inning — so much so that Toronto manager John Gibbons came out of the dugout — he lined a double into the left-center gap.
That put runners on second and third for Edwin Encarnacion and provided the Blue Jays with their first at-bat with runners in scoring position. (The Mariners were 1-for-13 with RISP.)
James Paxton struck out Encarnacion.
PLUS: Rookie reliever Edwin Diaz had two strikeouts in a one-two-three eighth inning. He has 44 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings over his 21 appearances…James Paxton has won his last five starts against AL East opponents.
MINUS: The Mariners were 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, including 0-for-6 with less than two outs…Robinson Cano was only Mariner who failed to reach base through a hit or a walk. He was 0-for-5, which dropped his average to .300.
STAT PACK: Nori Aoki had a triple and a double in his first two at-bats, which marked the first time as a Mariner that he had two extra-base hits in a game. His last game with two extra-base hits was April 19, 2015 against Arizona while playing for San Francisco.
QUOTABLE: James Paxton, a Canadian native, is 2-1 in three career starts at the Rogers Centre.
“It is cool (to pitch here),” he said. “It is very cool to get a win in Canada and pitch in front of the Canadian fans. Hear the Canadian anthem. That’s always special. It was very fun.”
SHORT HOPS: Nelson Cruz’s line drive in the seventh inning hit first-base umpire Jordan Baker, who shook it off. Play continued, and Cruz hit a broken-bat single to left on the next pitch ... Adam Lind had a double in four at-bats in his first game at the Rogers Centre as an opposing player. He spent his first nine seasons with the Blue Jays. ... Toronto starter Marco Estrada had not hit a batter this season before hitting Seth Smith in the first inning. Estrada also hit Mike Zunino in the sixth. ... The Mariners are 17-18 in one-run games. Toronto is 9-17.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners