Using breaking pitches that seemed far too sharp after a 19-day layoff and his typical high-90s fastball, James Paxton delivered an outstanding performance, tossing seven shutout innings and leading the Mariners to a 2-0 victory Monday over Houston.
One pitcher had dominant, perfect-game level stuff for five innings, and the other had winning-level shutout stuff for seven innings.
It was the latter of the two pitchers, the guy who seems to think that a caterpillar mustache — which almost makes him look like a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — is a good idea, won the duel of power arms.
Pitching for the first time since discomfort in his lower back forced him out of the first inning of his July 12 start in Anaheim, Seattle left-hander James Paxton erased any doubts about his back becoming a lingering problem while providing a serious reminder about his place in the Mariners’ rotation hierarchy, which is at the top.
Using breaking pitches that seemed far too sharp after a 19-day layoff and his typical high-90s fastball, Paxton delivered an outstanding performance on a comfortable evening at Safeco Field, tossing seven shutout innings and leading the Mariners to a 2-0 victory Monday over the World Series champion Houston Astros.
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“He was fresh,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said with a smile. “The Big Maple was fresh tonight. What an outing, what pitching in a ballgame. Probably one of the top pitching games we’ve seen all year, certainly on both sides of the ball.”
For the Mariners, the bullpen did the rest. Alex Colome worked a scoreless, but drama-filled eighth inning and closer Edwin Diaz notched save No. 40 with a 1-2-3 ninth.
The Mariners improved to 63-43 while handing Houston (67-41) its fifth consecutive defeat. Seattle moved to three games back in the American League West standings.
Paxton allowed just three hits — two in the first inning and then one in the fourth — while striking out eight and walking none. The decision to scratch him from his previous scheduled start to let some lingering back discomfort get resolved was the right one.
“I didn’t have to think about my back once, which was great,” Paxton said. “That’s the point I wanted to get to before I came back. I feel like if I had come back the start before this, I would’ve been out there thinking about my back and I wouldn’t have been able to compete like I did.”
And seeing Paxton compete at his highest level was reassuring for the Mariners and their fans. If the Mariners are to have any hope of holding their current projected postseason spot, Paxton has to be healthy and pitching to his talent and expectations.
“He’s going to be key for us,” Servais said. “Everybody has to have that horse that they go to every five days, knowing he’s going to get you deep in the ballgame and keep you right there. The rest of the team feels it.”
Paxton is 3-0 with a 0.87 ERA against the Astros in three starts this season with 21 strikeouts and four walks in 20 2/3 innings. He’s 5-1 with a 1.29 ERA in his past seven starts against the Astros, dating back to 2017.
The outing Monday didn’t start out dominant. While Paxton’s velocity was up, touching 97 mph with his fastball, so were his pitches in the first inning. He allowed back-to-back one-out singles to Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel. But after watching Evan Gattis just miss a mammoth three-run homer, sending a blast just to the left of the left-field foul pole, Paxton came back to strike out the hulking lumberjack. Tyler White ended the inning with a deep fly ball to center. There was plenty of hard contact, but no runs scored.
Paxton found his groove in the second and it continued through the seventh, retiring 16 of the 19 batters with Gattis’ fourth-inning single breaking up the run of consecutive outs.
“I think the breaking pitches early, I was just trying to get a feel for those,” Paxton said. “And then the second inning came around, and I started to throw a few more of them and I started to get a feel as the game went on for those pitches.”
Paxton outlasted Astros’ All-Star starter Gerrit Cole, who was absolutely dominant early in the game. The flame-throwing right-hander carried a perfect game into the fifth and a no-hitter into the sixth. Cole retired the first 12 Mariners with ease, racking up six strikeouts. He hit Nelson Cruz with a wayward breaking ball to start the fifth to allow his first base runner, but got through the inning without allowing a hit.
“I guess that helped,” Cruz said. “He was dealing with no one on and we changed the tempo of the game when we got runners on base. We battled him.”
There was no indication Cole would give up a hit, let alone the game, when he viciously struck out Andrew Romine and Dee Gordon to start the sixth. But Jean Segura hit a hard ground ball up the middle. Gurriel, who was starting in place of injured American League MVP Jose Altuve at second base, made a diving stop, but couldn’t get his throw to first in time to get a hustling Segura. Does Altuve make that play? Probably, but the Mariners didn’t case as Denard Span followed with a single to center.
With runners on first and second and two outs, Cruz continued his torrid stretch of hitting, yanking a first-pitch slider down the third-base line for a double that would score Segura with ease.
“One base hit can do it,” Cruz said. “Segura got it going. He’s (Cole) definitely one of the best pitchers in the league. We were just hoping for a least one run with the way Paxton was pitching. I was just looking for something I could elevate, something I could drive.”
The ball banged off the wall in foul territory and rolled away from left fielder Marwin Gonzalez. That allowed third-base coach Scott Brosius to be aggressive and send Span home on the play. The veteran outfielder made a nice slide into home to just beat the throw from Gonzalez and the tag from catcher Max Stassi for a 2-0 lead.
“Scott’s really done a nice job all year,” Servais said. “It happens so fast out there and understanding the ball caroming off the padding there and you have to take a shot at the point in the game where we were at. Those were big runs.”
Given a lead, Paxton went for the finishing move in the seventh, knowing it was his last inning. His last three pitches were two 98 mph fastballs followed by a biting 85 mph breaking ball to get Gonzales for a swinging strike three on his 82nd pitch of the game.
“After we scored those two runs, I was coming out with both barrels and just let it rip,” he said. “My body felt good, my rhythm felt good and I was able to reach back and get a little more.”
And the mustache that looks straight out of “Super Troopers?”
“The mustache, yeah,” he said. “My wife, over the break, said I should try shaving it in. And so I did. And she likes it. Happy wife, happy life, right?”
After an outing like that, is there any question whether it is staying?
“For now,” he said. “It works.”