James Paxton’s day started with an ominous text message.
At 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning, Paxton woke up to a text from his father asking him to call. When he did, Paxton’s dad told him his grandfather, Lawrie, had died earlier that morning.
Paxton carried that with him all day, right up until Saturday night, when he stepped on the mound at Safeco Field for his major-league debut against the Tampa Bay Rays in front of 17,773 fans. Paxton, a fourth-round pick in 2010, honored his grandfather by giving up just two runs (one earned) in six innings while leading the Mariners to a 6-2 win.
“In baseball you learn to compartmentalize,” Paxton said. “I was obviously thinking of him before the game. I pointed up to the sky, and I knew he was up there watching and helping me out. It was just really special to get this win for him.”
If Paxton had any trouble controlling his emotions, he didn’t show it. He retired the first five hitters he faced, including four on ground outs – a sign he was keeping his pitches down, which he needs to do. He then got into trouble in the second inning, when he allowed two runners with two outs. But he maneuvered through the jam without any damage.
Paxton, who is 6 foot 4, dips his arm way back when he throws, like he’s trying to reach down and grab something off the mound. He throws hard – his pitches were consistently in the mid-90s – and at times dialed it up to the high-90s as the game wore on.
“He got kind of into it,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “You could see him really stretching it out. The fastball got even better with better command. He didn’t walk people, and when he missed, he was missing close.”
Manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis’ shared concern before the game centered on Paxton trying to be too fine. Would he try to make perfect pitches instead of letting his defense make plays behind him?
That wasn’t an issue. Paxton’s only blemish came when he gave up a two-run homer in the sixth inning to Evan Longoria, but he responded by striking out the next batter. He gave up four hits, one walk and struck out three in his six innings.
“He pitched with a lot of confidence today,” Wedge said. “There’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be even more confident after the way he performed.”
Paxton was wildly inconsistent at Class AAA Tacoma, going 8-11 with a 4.45 ERA. He was just as likely to go eight innings and give up zero earned runs as he was to give up three runs in three innings.
Mike Zunino, who was Paxton’s teammate in Tacoma earlier this year and who caught his debut, said the good Paxton looked just like he did on Saturday.
“He moves that fastball in and out of the zone, and he’s extremely deceptive,” Zunino said. “He’s got great size and the ball just seems to get on you. He was able to throw that fastball in and out and get a lot of early outs, then he started throwing that curveball more.”
Kendrys Morales had three hits, a home run and two RBIs, and Nick Franklin had his first game with two extra-base hits since July 28. Franklin also took a knee to the back of the head from Justin Smoak, who hit his 16th homer of the season in the second inning, but Franklin kept playing and said he was fine.
Yet the night belonged solely to Paxton.
“It was a great experience,” he said.