MARYVALE, Ariz. — James Paxton handed the baseball to Mariners manager Scott Servais. A successful workday in the Sunday sun was complete.
As he sauntered off the pitcher’s mound of American Family Fields and headed to the third-base dugout where his teammates were standing and applauding, the 2,242 fans in attendance rose to their feet and rewarded his effort in his first Cactus League outing with boisterous applause.
The whole moment was surreal for multiple reasons. The first was that Paxton was pitching against the Brewers in their home stadium in Maryvale. Though in past years, opposing fans often outnumbered Milwaukee fans in their home spring-training games.
After growing accustomed to seeing games in all sports without fans and real crowd noise, the idea of having enough fans in attendance to generate enough applause to make a standing ovation noticeable felt, well, weird.
“It was awesome,” Paxton said. “It was great to see all the Mariners fans out there, and I’m just pumped to have fans back in the stands. It changes everything. It’s a lot more fun for us out there.”
Paxton certainly delivered a performance worthy of the cheers. The big lefty offered a reminder of his past success in a Mariners uniform, pitching 4 1/3 innings and allowing one run on two hits with two walks and eight strikeouts. His fastball consistently sat between 94-96 mph and touched 97 mph on a couple of occasions.
“It has been a while since I’ve been in a real game facing hitters in different colored jerseys, but I really enjoyed it,” Paxton said. “It was fun to get out with the guys and compete.”
He had to wait longer than expected for that opportunity. Despite living in the U.S. on a full-time basis, Paxton, who was born in Canada, still needed to get a work visa approved. He signed just days before pitchers and catchers had to report, and there were some unexpected complications. The Mariners couldn’t pitch him in Cactus League games without it being officially approved. So for his three scheduled start days this spring, he had to pitch in simulated games against his teammates on the back fields of the Mariners’ complex in Peoria.
“I would have loved to pitch in ‘A’ games right from the start,” he said. “But there’s nothing I could do about it, nothing anybody could do about it, it was just kind of the situation we were in. Signing when I signed, and the way the world is right now with COVID, everything’s moving a little slower. It really wasn’t anybody’s fault, but I’m just glad that we got it taken care of and now I’m back in ‘A’ games.”
Admittedly, those simulated games didn’t offer the same level of intensity. Paxton had to adjust to the different feeling in the first inning where he gave up the only run.
“That first inning I was really feeling my way through it,” he said.
Paxton gave up a leadoff “double” when Jake Fraley lost Kolten Wong’s pop fly to left field in the sun. Paxton issued a walk to Keston Hiura and gave up a soft groundball single through the right side to Christian Yelich.
But he wouldn’t allow another hit the rest of the way. He retired 12 of the next 13 batters he faced with the only base runner coming on a walk.
“Once the second inning came around, I started letting it rip and feeling good,” he said.
Paxton struck out seven batters over the next 3 1/3 innings, including a swinging strikeout of Yelich on a 97-mph fastball.
“The fastball came in the second inning and the break stuff came in the third and fourth,” Paxton said.
Servais couldn’t have been more pleased with the first outing.
“I’m really excited to see Paxton come back,” Servais said. “After that shaky first inning, he really got on a roll. I was not expecting to get eight punch outs in his first game out there. He did not disappoint. He had a ton of swing and miss on his fastball. I’m really excited to have him back in our uniform again.”
Paxton is excited to be back with the organization that drafted, developed and helped him achieve MLB success. Of course, the Mariners also traded him to the Yankees after the 2018 season as part of the rebuild plan started by general manager Jerry Dipoto.
While results of the outing, including the strikeouts and fastball velocity are noteworthy, it represented verification to Paxton that he’s back to normal health after a 2020 season where injuries limited him to just five starts.
The last of those five starts he made in 2020 came Aug. 20 against the Rays at Yankee Stadium. He felt forearm discomfort after the outing and was diagnosed with flexor strain in his left forearm that sent him to the injured list and ended his season. Paxton believes the strain was a byproduct of the back surgery he underwent Feb. 5 to repair a herniated disk and remove a peridiscal cyst.
As he pushed to get back for the shortened 2020 season, he admittedly underestimated how difficult the recovery would be. His legs and core felt weak while his delivery felt awkward and out of sync. It didn’t allow him to use his lower half to drive off the mound. And to try and generate velocity with his fastball, he put more emphasis on his arm. The forearm couldn’t handle it.
But after an offseason spent working out in Bellevue at the Athletic Training Institute to regain his strength and plenty of time getting familiar with his mechanics, he feels more like the pitcher who was so dominant for Seattle in 2017 and 2018. And since he and his wife, Katie, spent the offseason in Bellevue, signing a one-year, $8.5 million contract with the Mariners seemed like the best decision. He turned down better offers to come back home to his first organization.
“You learn a lot when you go to another ballclub in how they do it and getting the exposure of being in New York and around a lot of veteran players,” Servais said. “You learn things. You learn how they go about it, maybe how they deliver messages to younger players. I think he’s taken all that and he just is much more mature.”
Along with Marco Gonzales, Paxton gives the Mariners a second proven starter in a rotation that is otherwise unproven at the MLB level.
“It’s great to have him back,” Servais said. “I know what he’s going to mean to our ballclub this year. We’ve got to keep him healthy, keep him going, making every turn. You’re going to look up at the end of the year and he’s going to have a big season. There’s no question in my mind.”
Paxton returns to a rebuilding team that doesn’t necessarily have quite the expectations of his teams in New York.
“It’s a really young team, but a very talented team,” he said. “Obviously, there’s tons of talent around here on pitching, defense and hitting. I think it’s gonna be a really good team. We’ve got a chance to surprise some people this year.”