This will be the biggest start of James Paxton’s major-league career. Sure, his big-league career consists of a total of five starts, but getting to start in the 2014 home opener against Los Angeles on Tuesday night at Safeco Field is something he’s going to cherish.
“I’m very excited,” Paxton said. “It’s a great honor to get to start that game.”
It might rank even higher than his big-league debut against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 7 at Safeco Field.
“It’ll definitely be up there,” he said. “It’s going to be very cool.”
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It’s also going to be very full. The game is sold out, which means a lot more fans than the announced crowd of 17,788 Paxton pitched in front of in his debut.
“It’s going to be loud in there, which will make it a lot of fun for us,” Paxton said.
It’s an odd situation for Paxton. The big lefty will be making a second consecutive start against the Angels this season. In his first outing, he was borderline dominant, pitching seven scoreless innings and allowing two hits, while striking out nine and walking two.
Does it make it any more difficult to face the Angels again?
“I’m just trying to keep my plan the same,” he said. “If I see them start to make adjustments on me then I have to adjust also. It’s just going to be a bit of a chess match to see what happens and where I have to go with how I’m pitching.”
But it’s the adjustments Paxton has made over the past two seasons that have helped him reach this level.
There was little question of his talent when he was drafted by the Mariners in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. Paxton was taken in the first round of the 2009 draft by the Blue Jays and didn’t sign with the organization.
Blessed with a mid-90s fastball and a nasty curveball, Paxton always was considered to be one of the best prospects in the Mariners organization along with Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen. But his process was slowed by inconsistent command. It was largely due to some mechanical issues. At 6-foot-4 with long arms and longer legs, there’s plenty that could go wrong.
But an adjustment late last summer helped him find consistency. It led to his outstanding four big-league starts in September last season when he went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA.
“It was a change I made in my delivery,” he said. “I had done it for the month before I got called up, actually. I was working on shortening my delivery on the backside so my arm wasn’t as long. It made my delivery easier to repeat. When you have a repeatable delivery, it’s much easier to throw strikes.”
The adjustment was the idea of Pete Vuckovich and Ted Simmons, who serve as special assistants to general manager Jack Zduriencik. They told Paxton to watch tapes of Dodgers’ left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw — the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner.
“We have kind of a similar delivery,” Paxton said. “He’s got a hitch in his I don’t have, but the arm path is pretty similar. I was watching his video, and I noticed how he did his arm on the back side of his delivery, his delivery wasn’t quite as long as mine. I started to think why he did that.”
It was sound logic considering Kershaw has a career 2.59 ERA.
“I tried it out, because I wanted to see what it felt like,” Paxton said. “I just realized how much easier it was to get to my release point every time. The same release point. I just kind of picked it up, and it was working great for me, so I ran with it.”
Paxton also added another pitch to his repertoire. Last season, his minor-league pitching coaches, Dwight Bernard and Terry Clark, suggested he play around with a cut fastball to see if it would be a pitch he’d like to add to his arsenal.
Walker was in the process of perfecting the pitch so Paxton tried it out.
“Taijuan showed me the grip he used and I started throwing it in bullpens,” he said. “I felt really comfortable with the pitch.”
Paxton started implementing it into bullpen sessions and even used it a handful of times late last season.
“It felt really natural with my arm slot and my delivery,” he said. “I’m able to stay on top of the ball.”
This season it has been effective; he threw it 17 times against the Angels.
Catcher Mike Zunino joked the cutter has so much movement that sometimes it’s more like a slider.
“It’s a big pitch for him, whatever you want to call it,” he said
Paxton has been using it as a pitch to get in on right-handers hands. At 89 to 90 mph, it causes problems.
“It offers a good counter to my change-up and two-seamer that go away from right-handers,” he said. “It’s still a work in progress, but it’s been effective.”
The same could be said for Paxton.
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @RyanDivish