Despite not having his best stuff Tuesday, Paxton kept the White Sox off-balance and allowed just one run with four strikeouts in four innings. The current version of Paxton seems to be mentally stronger and more equipped to deal with situations like that.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The progression of the pitcher that is James Paxton isn’t just about changed arm slots, 99 mph fastballs filling the strike zone or a cutter/slider pitch that doesn’t quite have a name but yields impressive results.
It goes beyond the physical side.
Paxton has grown and matured as a competitor, using the setbacks he’s experienced as learning tools along an uneven path to today.
Mariners 7, White Sox 6, at Peoria Stadium
Notable: After the previous two ugly losses, the Mariners got better pitching and played better baseball on Tuesday in a win over the White Sox. Seattle improved to 11-7 in Cactus League play. Starter James Paxton was solid, pitching four innings, giving up a run on four hits with no walks and four strikeouts.
Player of the game: It was almost a two-homer game for Tyler Smith. The former Oregon State standout continued to swing a hot bat, going 2 for 3 with a homer and four RBI. Smith narrowly missed out on a three-run homer in the first inning with a long fly ball to left-center that bounced over the wall, forcing him to settle for an RBI double in the first inning. He left no doubt in his second at-bat, crushing a deep fly ball onto the berm in left-center for a three-run homer in the third inning.
Quotable: “Tyler Smith. He’s had some kind of week, jumping on some fastballs early and he’s played very well.” — Mariners manager Scott Servais
On tap: The Mariners return to Peoria Stadium on Wednesday and will host the Dodgers. Right-hander Chris Heston will get the start for Seattle. First pitch is set for 1:10 p.m. The game will be televised live on Root Sports Northwest and MLB.TV. The only live radio broadcast will be on mariners.com. ESPN 710 will run a delayed broadcast at 7 p.m.
Those examples aren’t as easy to pinpoint as an eye-popping reading on a radar gun.
But Tuesday offered a hint. Many of the 6,252 fans at Peoria Stadium figured they had watched Paxton work a relatively drama-free four innings while baking in the Arizona sun and 90-degree temps.
It was anything but for the Mariners left-hander.
“It didn’t feel great out there, and I didn’t have my best stuff,” he said.
For not having his best stuff, Paxton still worked the four innings well, allowing just one run on three hits with no walks and four strikeouts.
The run allowed was a solo homer to Yolmer Sanchez on a mistake pitch. The ball was a typical Arizona homer — a low liner that wouldn’t have made it out in most big-league parks. Paxton found a way to get outs. Of course it helped that the White Sox didn’t have a full lineup and there is minimal pressure in a spring-training game. But he still got results.
“I just tried to mix speeds a little bit to keep them off balance,” Paxton said. “(Mike Zunino) did a really nice job calling the game behind the plate, and I made pitches when I had to.”
Manager Scott Servais saw the same thing.
“He probably wasn’t as good as when we saw him against the Cubs,” Servais said, referencing Paxton’s previous outing. “It was effective. He got some changeups over. His curveball was kind of in and out — a couple of innings it was good, and not so good after that.”
To Paxton, nothing felt consistently right or comfortable. He wasn’t able to attack hitters the way he normally would.
“It just wasn’t sharp,” he said. “My curveball wasn’t very sharp. I threw some good ones, which helped me out. I was able to make guys respect it enough to keep them off the fastball. (My) cutter wasn’t locating very well, but I threw a couple that were OK. The changeup was pretty good today and it saved me. My fastball location was just so-so. I was falling behind hitters and not where I want to be.”
A year ago, even in a Cactus League game, Paxton might have panicked and tried to overthrow his way through it. The faith in his delivery, his repertoire and ability to adapt in-game hadn’t blossomed.
But the current version of Paxton seems to be mentally stronger and more equipped to deal with the situation. He’s had a lot of help along the way from players like Zunino and from pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s a learning process. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself and what to do when my stuff isn’t working. Mel has been great, talking to me in between innings last season, teaching me what I need to do when I’m not feeling really good.”
An example of that thinking is valuing every one of his four pitches to stay with them, even if they are a little shaky.
“We won’t just abandon a pitch when it’s not really working for me,” Paxton said. “We’ll just throw it in spots that are safe and try to find it. We’ll throw it in between innings trying to get it going. It could be a game where it comes around in the fifth inning and then it’s really good. And that’s what will get me through the fifth, sixth, seventh inning.”
Servais and the Mariners have said since the end of last season and in the offseason that Paxton has turned a corner in his career. This is another example of it.
“He’s able to repeat his release point,” Servais said. “He’s got more weapons that he’s got confidence in it, and he’s able to repeat it. He’s able to make the minor adjustments versus scattering balls and not being able to get any rhythm going. That’s the maturity. That’s where he’s at pitching-wise. He understands his delivery better than he ever has and he’s getting good results.”
Spring training is more than just getting in shape, building arm strength and experimenting with pitches. There is other preparation that can occur.
“It’s going to happen during the season,” he said. “There are going to be days when I don’t feel my good curveball or my good cutter. And I just have to figure it out.”
It’s what the Mariners and their fans have been patiently waiting for all these years for James Paxton to figure it out.