James Paxton turned in one of the most dominant pitching games in Mariners history with 16 strikeouts in seven innings against Oakland, the most of any Seattle pitcher since Randy Johnson in 1997. But the bullpen blew it.
If James Paxton turned a seemingly routine Wednesday in May against the Oakland A’s into a night to remember, the Mariners also wanted to make sure it wasn’t a night they would regret.
And so, while Paxton unleashed one of the most dominant pitching performances in team history by striking out a career-high 16 batters through seven innings — the most of any Mariner since Randy Johnson had a team-record 19 in 1997 — Seattle manager Scott Servais made the move to the bullpen to start the eighth.
There was little reason to think what would happen next actually would — the Mariners blowing a two-run lead and allowing Oakland to escape with a 3-2 win, the final run coming on a homer off closer Edwin Diaz to lead off the ninth.
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Seattle had blown only one save in its first 28 games of the season, and that came in a game they would ultimately win.
But if there was regret here, Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says at least it will be temporary.
What would have been worse, he said, is taxing Paxton too much — he had thrown 105 pitches to that point. Paxton has never made more than 24 starts in a season, and suffering an injury was worth avoiding.
“It’s a long season,” Stottlemyre said. “… This ballclub, this rotation, needs our big three guys to stay healthy. So you look at our bullpen and what they have done and those two guys at the end have been very dominant. So at the end (of the seventh), I told (Servais) that was it.”
Paxton, who has never had a complete game in his major-league career that dates to 2013, didn’t argue.
He needed 25 pitches to get through the seventh, an inning that also included his only walk. After the walk, which put runners on first and second with two outs and Seattle ahead 2-0, Stottlemyre visited the mound, said he looked Paxton in the eye and told him to “empty the tank.”
Certainly, Paxton still had some gas, striking out Jake Smolinski on a 97 mph fastball high in the zone to end the inning. The generally-reserved Paxton celebrated with a hearty fist pump into his mitt.
“I kind of had a feeling that was going to happen, that he was going to go to the bullpen there,” said Paxton, whose longest performance in the majors is 81/3 innings (in 2016). “At some point hopefully I will be able to get deeper and use less pitches and get deeper into the game there and maybe go past that pitch count. But I totally understand the decision.”
The big picture, the Mariners said afterward, is what might be a breakout performance by a pitcher who has had flashes of being among the best but has lacked only consistency and health.
“To be that dominant at this level, it’s pretty amazing,” Servais said.
Paxton’s 16 strikeouts were the most in the majors this year, as were his 30 swinging strikes, according to ESPN — 14 of his strikeouts coming on swings and misses. Paxton threw 80 strikes in all and threw a first-pitch strike to 15 of the first 17 batters he faced.
Paxton, who had never before had more than 10 strikeouts in a game, was masterful from start to finish, beginning with what was almost an immaculate inning — three strikeouts on nine pitches — falling short when Jed Lowrie fouled off a pitch.
More amazing to Servais is that Paxton did it largely with a fastball that was clocked as high as 98 mph against an A’s team known for hitting fastballs.
“There were no secrets,” Servais said. “He knew what he was going to throw and they knew what he was going to throw and he just overpowered them, which doesn’t happen very often in this league.”
Said Paxton: “I had probably the best fastball I’ve ever had in my career today and it was jumping, so we were using the top of the zone and guys were swinging right through it.”
Seattle’s two runs in the third seemed like enough to get the win.
But Nicasio gave up a double to Matt Joyce and then a homer to Lowrie to tie it on a 2-0 pitch.
Seattle loaded the bases in the eighth but couldn’t score.
Diaz, who had given up just one run all season, then came on and gave up a leadoff homer to Canha. Diaz said it was a fastball that was supposed to be away that got too much of the plate.
“Those guys have been outstanding for us all year and just didn’t get it done tonight,” Servais said.
The frustration mounted when Seattle again loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth — for the second straight inning with the aid of replay overturning an out call on the base paths — and couldn’t score, with Jean Segura grounding out to third.
Thus ended a game that also reaffirmed the baseball axiom that you just never know what you’re going to see on a night out at the ballpark — according to the Mariners, the last American League pitcher to earn a no-decision after striking out at least 16 in a scoreless outing was Oakland’s Vida Blue on July 9, 1971 against the Angels.
“It’s tough,” Paxton said. “We want to win, especially a game like that. But our offense has been awesome. Those guys are great, and our bullpen has been lights out, and it was just one of those nights that the guys just didn’t have it and those are going to happen.’’