James Paxton no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays for the sixth no-no in Mariners history. He wasn't dominant from the start, though, and he couldn't have done it without his nasty curve ball or catcher Mike Zunino.
TORONTO — Did something get left out? Is something missing? When something as rare and special as James Paxton’s no-hitter occurs, the fear is that you couldn’t get everything you wanted into that night’s game story and coverage. In the chaos after that last out Tuesday night, you are bombarded with interviews and information about the special moment. So much is said and discussed. It can’t all fit.
“I think we know that every time Pax takes the mound there is an opportunity for something special to happen,” manager Scott Servais said.
Yet in the aftermath, you realize there are so many things that must go right for that opportunity to turn into something special.
With that in mind, here are a few more notes and thoughts from Paxton’s no-hitter.
Lost rhythm, wandering command
For those that didn’t watch all nine innings Tuesday, they might not know Paxton was far from dominant throughout. He was more overpowering in his previous outing vs. the A’s in which he struck out 16. After retiring the side in order in the first two innings on 20 pitches Tuesday against the Blue Jays, Paxton got out of sorts in the third inning.
He issued a leadoff walk to Kendrys Morales on four fastballs that were under 94 mph. After a hard line drive to center off the bat of Lourdes Gurriel was caught by Dee Gordon, Paxton walked his second hitter of the inning. Anthony Alford took the free pass, receiving some help from home-plate umpire James Hoye, who didn’t call a pair of pitches that Pitch F/X, a pitch-tracking system, showed as strikes at the top of the zone.
At that point, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre jogged to the mound to check on his pitcher.
“The first two innings, I felt really good,” Paxton said. “But in third inning when I walked those two guys, my (right) foot was slipping forward. I tried to dig it out. So I kind of backed off a little it because I didn’t want slip and hurt myself. And that’s when Mel came out and I dug it out a little more and tried to get back to find some rhythm.”
With Paxton’s semi-complicated mechanics, his 6-foot-5 frame and even longer wingspan, the slightest deviation in his routine — such as his plant foot slipping — can throw him out of whack. Fixing the mound didn’t erase the issue immediately.
“It took me a couple of innings,” Paxton said. “I feel like it didn’t really start to come around for me till the fifth.”
Paxton got Teoscar Hernandez to pop out for the second out of the third inning, and Josh Donaldson rolled over on a misplaced cutter for a force out to end the inning.
In the fourth, Paxton struck out Yangervis Solarte on three pitches, but then he walked former teammate Justin Smoak on four pitches, leaving him shaking his head. But Paxton escaped the inning by getting Kevin Pillar to ground into a 5-4-3 double play.
“We made some pitches in those innings when I hadn’t found it yet,” Paxton said. “And we made some plays behind me. And after that I found my rhythm again.”
Blue Jays’ trouble with the curve
When Paxton was searching for the rhythm to his mechanics in the third and fourth innings — and it’s hard not to envision him doing the “Carlton” dance from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air television show when he talks about it — catcher Mike Zunino decided that more curveballs might help the process.
Usually when Paxton’s rhythm and timing is disrupted, it’s noticeable in lack of fastball command. So Zunino started calling for the curveball. When it’s right, it’s a devastating pitch with a late, 12-to-6 break. It appears to collapse just before the plate. Because the curveball’s velocity sits in the mid 70s, it’s a major adjustment for hitters that are being conscious of Paxton’s mid-90s fastballs and high-80s sliders.
“He had lost his release point a little bit with his fastball,” Zunino said. “But his curveball is what got him back in. I told him we are just going to start using that early to get you back on line. He threw some great ones, and then he found his fastball and cutter again.”
While people love that his fastball that can touch triple digits, Paxton’s nasty curveball was one of his better pitches last season. According to Pitch F/X data from Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball, he threw it 21.4 percent of the time in 2017, and it generated swings and misses 17 percent of the time. When the curveball was put it into play, it was a line drive just 1.58 percent of the time with hitters batting just .155 against it.
And yet, this year his curveball usage was down to 14.8 percent. Why? Because the command of the pitch hasn’t consistently been there this season. He has thrown strikes with it just 22.8 percent of the time. Paxton hasn’t had a start in which he felt he could place the curveball where he wanted in the strike zone.
But on Tuesday night, it was outstanding. He threw it on the outside corner for early strikes and buried it in the dirt when he was ahead in the count. He threw it 23 times — the second most-used pitch to 59 fastballs. Of the 23 curveballs, 15 were strikes and five generated swings and misses.
“The curveball was the best it’s been this season,” Paxton said. “Mel came up to me and said, ‘Hey you are spinning the curveball good, but you just need to get a little more extension.’ And then I did that and there it was. That was very helpful tonight.”
A catcher’s delight
You don’t want to think of Paxton as Linus from the old Peanuts cartoons and it’s certainly impossible to envision the strapping Zunino as a piece of soft, light blue fleece.
But there is a little bit of a joke that Zunino has become Paxton’s security blanket.
It’s not a coincidence that Zunino caught every start from Paxton last season, and that Paxton’s performance improved this season when Zunino returned from the disabled list. Sorry, it wasn’t the bald eagle landing that propelled Paxton back to dominance.
Of Paxton’s 82 big-league starts, Zunino has caught 57. They’ve been the battery for a total 337 innings. During that time, Paxton has a 2.85 ERA.
The duo doesn’t quite share a brain, but each player seems to have a good idea what the other is thinking during games. For two guys from very different backgrounds — Paxton is a laid-back and quiet Canadian with a dry sense of humor, and Zunino is a fiery scout’s kid from Florida who provides more energy than 20 cans of Red Bull — it just works. They are a baseball odd couple. They both laugh at jokes about their relationship being a professional marriage.
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“I’ve caught a lot of his games,” Zunino said.
It dates to 2012 when Zunino, who was drafted that summer, was promoted to Class AA Jackson at the end of the season. They have seen each other fail in the big leagues and get demoted to Class AAA. Despite their obvious talent, there was more than a few times when both were considered failed prospects. That winding path for both players drew them closer. Their relationship on the field wasn’t built in the palaces that are big-league ballparks but in the obscure ballyards and bad flights of the Pacific Coast League.
“It’s really special,” Zunino said. “We go all the way back to Double A. And we’ve seen each other grow both as players and people. So to see him put all that hard work and eventually come up and throw a no-hitter in the big leagues is amazing. He deserves it. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met in my life.”
Catchers struggle with Paxton’s velocity and explosive movement, but Zunino has been catching him for so long he’s not only able to handle the next-level stuff but enhance it with his soft receiving and perceptive pitch framing. And he’s like a second pitching coach for Paxton during games.
“Working with Mike Zunino for the last 6-7 years, we know each other very well,” he said. “He knows what I’m thinking on the mound. He knows how to get me right. And I don’t think I would have been able to do it without that guy out there.”
A no-hitter isn’t just a pitcher’s accomplishment. For Zunino, this was “by far the coolest moment of my career.”
“I got nervous with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning,” he said. “I’ve gone into the seventh a couple of times with guys, but it’s hard to get through the order that third time. When it got that late and you have Josh Donaldson up, you want to make sure you put the right fingers down.”