With the win, the Mariners improved to 81-72 and didn’t lose ground in the American League wild-card standings.
MINNEAPOLIS — What do we really know about James Paxton as a big-league pitcher?
Until this recent stretch of the 2016 season, it’s been all unmet potential and an unclear determination as to whether Paxton is a viable big-league starter and a foundation piece of Seattle’s future.
But that’s started to change with each recent outing.
Mariners @ Minnesota,4:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
Paxton delivered yet another strong showing Friday, looking dominant against hapless Minnesota hitters, and his teammates provided him with more than enough run support in a 10-1 drubbing of the Twins.
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With the win, the Mariners improved to 81-72 and didn’t lose ground in the American League wild-card standings. The Blue Jays, Orioles and Tigers all prevailed to keep the Mariners two games back. Seattle moved a half-game ahead of the Astros, who lost at home to the Los Angeles Angels.
For the Mariners, the development of Paxton has been a lengthy but needed process, and its importance goes beyond this season and the late playoff push. Can this be a permanent version? Can the Mariners count on him to be this pitcher in years to come?
“I certainly hope so,” M’s manager Scott Servais said. “He’s got a ton of confidence. You see it. He’s just attacking the hitters. He’s trusting his stuff. Hopefully we can keep him in a good spot and we see this going forward.”
Because until this season, this much was known about Paxton: He had obvious talent — a left-handed arm with a fastball that can sit in the upper 90s, a nasty curveball and an improving cutter and changeup. But he had also been plagued by injuries — shoulder and lat issues in 2014, a strained tendon in his finger in 2015 and nagging fingernail issues the last two seasons.
After his big-league debut on Sept. 7, 2013, much was expected from Paxton, but going into Friday night, he had compiled a 16-15 record in 48 starts with a 3.45 earned-run average.
Those numbers improved after Friday’s outing. Aided by his best command of his curveball this season, he pitched seven innings, allowing one run on five hits, while striking out nine batters and walking none to improve to 5-7. It was Paxton’s 10th quality start of the season.
Starting this season in Class AAA Tacoma wasn’t what he wanted, but it may have been beneficial. Paxton changed his arm angle and his velocity spiked up. The laid-back Canadian also changed his mental approach to pitching around midseason, understanding that being a power pitcher wasn’t just about velocity but a mindset.
“It’s been great to get a solid body of work,” he said. “This is where I need to be. This is what works. You’re constantly learning and adapting. I’ve learned some great things this year.”
His only run allowed came in the bottom of the seventh after sitting for more than a half-hour as his teammates hung six runs on the Twins. Paxton gave up a leadoff triple to Miguel Sano that probably should have been caught. Outfielder Ben Gamel made an unnecessary leaping attempt at a ball that was well short of the wall. Kennys Vargas followed with a single for the Twins’ only run.
Unlike his last outing where he gave up two runs in seven innings and took the loss, Paxton had plenty of run support — provided largely by the Mariners’ resurgent 3-4-5 hitters. The trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager, who went 9 for 64 with just five runs batted in on the recent homestand, combined to go 7 for 13 with six runs and seven RBI.
“Nice to see them come together,” Servais said. “We haven’t had a game like that in a while.”
They will need more games like that over the next nine days. For the Mariners to fight their way against the odds and make the postseason, that trio will have to shoulder the load. And they know it.
“It’s important for us,” said Cano, who had four hits and two RBI on the night. “The big thing is we have to do the job with men in scoring position.”
Cruz, who was robbed of a home run early in the game, hit a two-run double in a six-run seventh inning on a first-pitch fastball.
“I didn’t think I would get a fastball first pitch,” he said.
In the next inning, Cruz hit his 38th homer of the season, a massive blast to center off the facade of the upper-deck area.
MLB Statcast measured the blast at 455 feet. The two-run homer made it 10-1.