When James Paxton jogs to the mound Tuesday night, the homecoming will be complete.
The last time Paxton was on the mound in T-Mobile Park in a Mariners’ uniform was Sept. 29, 2018, and back then it was still known as Safeco Field. With the Mariners having already been eliminated from the postseason a few days before, the nadir of two-month collapse that saw Seattle squander a 12-game lead for the second wild-card spot, Paxton took to the mound in what would be his final start of the season.
He tossed six innings, allowing one run on seven hits with a walk and nine strikeouts.
At the time, neither he, nor the rest of that veteran-laden team, knew that the Mariners were in the midst of making the unexpected decision to embark on a rebuilding plan that would feature several of the team’s top players being traded for prospects.
After his catcher, Mike Zunino, was traded to the Rays in early November, Paxton was the next to be dealt, being sent to the Yankees two weeks later in exchange for three prospects, including Justus Sheffield.
Paxton now has returned to the organization as a free agent on a one-year, “prove it” contract following an injury-riddled season in New York. At age 32, he’s the second-oldest player on a roster that features only a few former teammates from that 2018 team. And while most of his teammates are new and the majority of the staff is different, it still feels like home for the Ladner, British Columbia product. This is the organization that drafted, developed and helped him find MLB success.
“I’m really excited,” Paxton said in a video conference before the game Monday. “I can’t wait to get out there tomorrow night.”
His return was slightly delayed when manager Scott Servais decided swap spots in the six-man rotation, moving Paxton to the No. 5 spot and Yusei Kikuchi up to the No. 2 spot.
It was a product of unusual spring that saw work visa issues with the Canadian government force Paxton to pitch in simulated or B games for his first three outings in spring training. He made a total of two Cactus League starts at the end and the Mariners wanted to give him a few extra days rest.
“It was kind of a weird spring training for me being stuck on backfields playing in B games and stuff,” Paxton said. “I’m just really looking forward to getting this season started for me, getting out there and getting in a routine. The extra days gave me a little bit of time to recover from jumping from B games straight to spring training games. I feel good and I’m ready to go.”
Because of that odd build up to spring training, Paxton is expected to work with a slightly lesser pitch count than he would for normal starts.
Will there be a Maple Grove cheering section for his first start? That group of Paxton fans created its own version of a cheering section in the left-field bleachers and would chant “Eh! Eh!” when he got two strikes on batters.
“I don’t know for sure,” said Paxton, who has embraced the cheering section and the fans responsible. “I’m not sure if they’re going to be able to do too much just because of the social distancing right now. I have seen on Twitter, I think they’re going to do something virtually. But I think there probably will be a few Grovers out there.”
Kyle Lewis hit in the indoor batting cages for the first time since suffering a bone bruise in the last week of spring training.
“I think just to kind of see where he’s at,” Servais said. “He’s progressing. We’re not going to push it too much, too early. We miss him. We want to get him back out there as soon as we can.”
But that won’t be when he’s eligible to come off the injured list on April 7.
“I don’t think we’ll probably see Kyle till mid-month,” Servais said. “Maybe two or three weeks before he is ready to get out on the field in a game.”