James Paxton wasted no time Saturday in keeping the plot thick about the dependability of the Mariners top-of-the-rotation pitchers.
Felix Hernandez’ surprisingly scintillating effort in the season opener fed hopes of a long anticipated one-two punch combining Hernandez’ veteran guile and Paxton’s lights-out stuff. It still might happen — 160 games remain on the Mariners schedule following their 6-5 defeat to Cleveland — but as Paxton showed Saturday, successful starts are not contagious.
“A tough day,” said the left-hander, whose summation was more economical than his 104-pitch struggle to find anything in his arsenal that worked. “I wasn’t locating my fastball very well, and when I did, it was over the plate.
“The off-speed pitches weren’t there. The curve ball wasn’t consistent, the cutter wasn’t consistent. Not a good day at all.”
Paxton’s troubles were evident early, when Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor led off the game with a rocket shot that third baseman Kyle Seager caught in an act of self defense. Jason Kipnis followed with a double to left center, but after retiring Jose Ramirez on a foul pop up for the second out, Paxton showed what happens when a power pitcher can’t command his secondary pitches.
He walked Edwin Encarnacion, setting up a two-out, two-on confrontation with Rajai Davis, a .264 career hitter known more for his speed and rangy defense than his bat. But he stayed alive during a prolonged procession of foul balls that found Paxton unable to deliver a swing-and-miss pitch.
Davis finally got the walk he wanted, loading the bases for the left-handed hitting Yonder Alonso. It loomed as a favorable match up for Paxton, who typically mystifies lefty hitters, but he grooved a fastball over the middle of the plate that Alonso struck for a no-doubt grand slam into the right-field seats.
“I was battling, giving everything I had,” Paxton said of the sequence against Davis. “But I just didn’t make a pitch there when I needed to, and then I made a bad pitch to Alonso.”
Although the Mariners chipped away at the 4-0 deficit, Paxton never settled into the rhythm expected of a staff ace. The two-run homer he allowed to Yan Gomes in the fourth inning gave the Indians a 6-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Over most of this decade — and the previous one, as well — when the visiting team jumped to a 6-3 lead at Safeco Field, it was a cue for fans to gather their belongings and head for home. Not this season.
“Our team competed well, we played our tails off,” said manager Scott Servais, referring to comeback-rally attempts in the seventh and eighth innings. “But we got down early, and Pax was not sharp. The walks really hurt. He walked four, and three of those guys scored.
“The top-notch pitchers in this league, you’ve got to get to them early because they settle in. Pax had a hard time settling in.”
Paxton’s first-start difficulties were a surprise, if for no other reason than his recent history. A year ago, he went 3-0 during April, with a 1.39 ERA. He struck out 39 with in five starts, and didn’t give up a run until April 20.
“Last season, I came out of the gate really well, with 23 scoreless innings,” he said. “Obviously, this year is not the same thing. But I’ll look to get back to how I usually try and start the season.”
Paxton’s tough day did not faze Servais, as the manager had a more pressing concern: Nelson Cruz tweaked his ankle on a dugout step after hitting his second home run in two games, and could be a candidate to join catcher Mike Zunino on the disabled list.
“A freak accident,” said Servais, who admitted that when he learned why Cruz would be unavailable to hit in the ninth inning, “I wanted to throw up. No other way to put it.”
As for Paxton’s unseasonably poor 2018 debut?
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Servais said. “He’s healthy. He just had an off day.