Manager Scott Servais announced his starting pitching rotation for the start of Cactus League play. James Paxton will pitch the opener on Wednesday against the Padres.
PEORIA, Ariz. — When the Mariners jog onto the field at Peoria Stadium on Wednesday in their annual charity game against the San Diego Padres, left-hander James Paxton will stride to the mound to open Cactus League play.
“Yep, that’s my game,” he said. “I’m first up and ready to go.”
A year ago at this time, Paxton was still in the preliminary aspect of his spring throwing program after being slowed by a forearm strain that came in a fall during workouts.
“I’m enjoying being healthy at the start much more than having to wait,” he said.
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It’s important for Paxton to be healthy this spring. He is in the midst of a competition with Nathan Karns, who will start on Thursday vs. the Padres, for the final spot in the starting rotation.
While general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are going to use past “track record” as a large part in determining the winner, they must also look at how the pitchers are throwing in Cactus League play.
“I think you have to go a with a little bit of what your eyes are telling you and what you are seeing every day in spring training games,” Servais said. “It’s not so much the results. … End of the day, you can’t get caught up in spring training numbers. If guys have a track record, you have to go back and lean on that.”
Paxton’s track record has been marred by injuries the past two seasons. He made just 13 starts in 2014 after being sidelined for three months with a strained lat and later shoulder tendinitis, which developed during the rehab. In 2015, Paxton suffered a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand and later a torn fingernail on the finger, limiting him to 13 starts.
The acquisition of Karns in the offseason from the Rays was a product of Paxton’s inability to show he can take the ball every fifth day.
In anticipation of this season and in an effort to stay healthy, Paxton shaved 20 pounds off his frame this offseason while working out in Seattle.
“I feel like I came into camp ready to go,” he said. “Doing all the drills, I feel much better, better on my feet and even just throwing the ball. I feel like I have less stress on everything. I think it’s just a plus all around.”
Paxton looked sharp in his live batting practice session on Sunday, flashing a powerful fastball and a vastly improved changeup that got weak contact and swings and misses. Because the fingernail was still healing when Paxton pitched in the Arizona Fall League to build innings, he was unable to throw breaking pitches. It forced Paxton to focus on improved fastball command and better use of the changeup.
“It was my only offspeed pitch so I had to throw it a lot,” Paxton said. “Being forced to throw it made it that much better.”
Servais announced the remainder of the upcoming rotation and his board had listed the second pitcher for each outing.
• Wednesday vs. Padres: James Paxton, Donn Roach
• Thursday vs. Padres: Nathan Karns, Joe Wieland
• Friday at Brewers: Taijuan Walker, Cody Martin
• Saturday vs. Angels: Wade Miley, Evan Scribner
• Sunday at Rangers: Hisashi Iwakuma, TBA
The starting pitchers are expected to work two innings and around 30-35 pitches. That’s a pretty standard guideline for the first start of the spring.
There is no significance to the order. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre determined it.
“It’s to work back from opening day and try to make sure everybody’s in a good spot,” Servais said. “The key is with starters obviously get them stretched out and let them build upon their pitches and their innings.”
Servais isn’t too concerned about Miley and Iwakuma facing American League West rivals right now.
“I don’t want to get too caught up with it early in spring,” he said. “I think the last start or two you have to be conscious of it a little bit, especially if you’re going to face that team early in the regular season. So it might be something we look at there.”
Situational hitting fun
The Mariners will not play any intrasquad games leading up to Cactus League play. Instead to break up the monotony of daily workouts, Servais is having two days’ worth of situational hitting and baserunning drills/games at the end of workouts. They are meant to provide some competition, team bonding and fun.
“It will be competitive,” Servais said. “We’ll go back-to-back days of that, and the culmination of the score from each day will determine the winner. The losers will be responsible for something, but we haven’t quite determined that yet.”
The Mariners broke into two teams on the main practice field, captained by Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz.
The drill featured minor league players manning every defensive position. Each team rotated their own runners on base in a set game situation. Hitters were then expected to come up to the plate against Servais, who was doing the pitching, and produce the proper result. If the hitter was successful, his team was awarded points. If the hitter failed, his team lost points.
Cruz’s team featured: Leonys Martin, Luis Sardinas, Boog Powell, Mike Baxter, Dario Pizzano, Seth Smith, Chris Taylor, Marcus Littlewood, Dae-Ho Lee, Steve Lerud, Franklin Gutierrez, Gaby Sanchez, Chris Iannetta and Benji Gonzalez.
Cano’s team, which had one less player, was manned by Nori Aoki, Ketel Marte, Adam Lind, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, Shawn O’Malley, Ed Lucas, Steve Clevenger, Jesus Montero, Stefen Romero, Steve Baron, Tyler Smith and Daniel Robertson.
The scoring system wasn’t outlined to the media and a bit of a mystery to the players. It was handled by bench coach Tim Bogar, who ran the drill.
The first situation was a runner on second with no outs.
The second situation was runners on first and third.
Cano’s team won the day, taking an 85-73 victory.
As expected, there was a healthy amount of trash talking and jeering. Cano accused Cruz’s team of cheating since they subbed in the speedy Martin and Powell as substitute runners for Cruz and Gutierrez, who were limited in the drill.
Cruz accused Cano’s team of cheating for having Aoki and Cano hitting twice to make up for having one less player.
“During the season he’d have to stay on base,” Cano said. “They put fast guys out there.”
Cruz returned the accusation.
“He was trying to cheat,” he said. “Do you see an opposing manager trying to dictate what you do on your team? That’s what he tried to do with my team.”
Servais said the teams could trade one player before Monday’s competition. But that doesn’t appear to be happening.
“No, no, I believe in my team,” Cruz yelled as Cano waved him off and headed to the showers. “Second half. We are going to take a break, you know All-Star. Then tomorrow we come back strong.”