Paxton, competing with Nathan Karns for the No. 5 spot in the Mariners’ rotation, pitched five innings Tuesday, allowing two runs on four hits with one walk and eight strikeouts.
PEORIA, Ariz. — James Paxton seemed impervious to the intimate setting with fans, scouts and Mariners minor-leaguers filling the small pair of bleachers just feet away from the field. He didn’t notice manager Scott Servais standing in street clothes and watching from behind the backstop.
It was a minor-league game on a back field of the Mariners’ spring-training complex, but the left-hander had a regular-season concentration level Tuesday. It was an important start in the competition for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.
“I just focused on executing pitches, making pitches and staying focused,” he said when asked about the surroundings. “That’s it.”
It’s perhaps not an ideal scenario for Paxton, who is competing with right-hander Nathan Karns for that final spot. Paxton, to stay on normal rest, had to pitch for Class AAA Tacoma against the Chicago White Sox’s Class AAA team because the Mariners had the day off.
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Ideally, pitchers in a competition will face higher-level opponents. But moving Paxton’s start would have affected the schedule for all of the starting pitchers.
Then again, after his previous outing — in which he pitched just two innings, giving up seven runs, six hits and four walks against Oakland — it didn’t matter who he pitched against. A higher level of execution and efficiency was expected.
He accomplished that Tuesday, pitching five innings and allowing two runs on four hits with one walk and eight strikeouts. The runs were solo homers — one of which was greatly wind-aided.
“I felt really good,” he said. “I felt like it was a really good step forward with my stuff. I feel like my stuff is where it needs to be.”
Paxton’s fastball velocity sat around 93-94 mph.
“I was just focusing on reaching for the mitt and being smooth,” he said. “I threw some really good fastballs. I got some pitches up in the zone when I wanted to go up in the zone, which is really good.”
His curveball, a pitch he has struggled with this spring, was much improved. He had better command with it, and it had a more-explosive break.
He worked between starts with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
“I was just working on getting extension,” Paxton said. “That’s what I was working on in the bullpen this week to get my curveball spinning a little tighter. Just reaching out there for the glove and getting that tight spin back.”
It fooled multiple hitters, generating several awkward swings.
Paxton cruised through the first two innings in order, striking out four of the first six batters.
After striking out the first two batters of the third, he gave up a wind-aided double to center. But he ended the inning moments later with a ground out to shortstop. Of the first 10 hitters he faced, Paxton threw seven first-pitch strikes.
In the fourth inning he gave up his first run — a solo homer to Joey DeMichele.
“I fell behind that guy 3-1, and he jumped on a fastball,” Paxton said. “I felt like I made some good pitches even when I got behind. The 2-1 changeup to him was a close pitch.”
In the fifth inning, designated hitter Kevan Smith led off with a solo homer to left-center on the first pitch.
“The first hitter was just cheating on the fastball and got one,” Paxton said. “Nothing you can do about that, but just be prepared during the season to start guys off with other pitches.”
Paxton issued his only walk to the next batter but came back with a strikeout and an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.
He finished with 73 pitches — 44 for strikes.
“I think it’s a pretty good spot to be in,” he said. “Two starts left, It would get me up to 90-100 pitches and ready for the season.”
If Paxton stays on normal rest, he would pitch again Saturday in Mesa against the Cubs and then April 1 against the Rockies.
Servais has said they could go to the final day of spring to choose the No. 5 starter.
• Tyler O’Neill and Ed Lucas homered for Tacoma. O’Neill crushed a two-run homer just to the right of the batter’s eye. It was yet another display of his power potential.
• The Mariners return to Cactus League action Wednesday night against the Oakland A’s. Karns will start for Seattle, and right-hander Jesse Hahn will pitch for the A’s. First pitch is 7:10 p.m. The game will be televised by Root Sports.