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September 12, 2014 at 11:01 PM

Mariners 4, A’s 2 — James Paxton powers through command issues, Fernando Rodney ties Seattle save record

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There were times on Friday night when it seemed like James Paxton’s start would freefall into a messy disaster and take the Mariners’ victory hopes down with him.

Perhaps a year or two ago, that might have happened.

But the rookie lefthander just wouldn’t break. Sure his command had left him and he had runners on nearly every inning, but Paxton maintained his composure, continued to fire mid-to-upper 90s fastballs and kept his team in the game.

His mettle was rewarded with a trio of solo home runs from Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison and Kendrys Morales and a big 4-2 victory for the Mariners over the Oakland A’s at Safeco Field.

With the win, the Mariners (80-66) move a half game behind the A’s (81-66) in the wild card standings. More importantly they clinched the overall series win over the A’s meaning they hold the advantage in any tiebreakers with Oakland.

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Paxton has had more dominant performances in his brief career. But with the elevated stakes and the command issues early, this outing was one of his best. He grinded through six innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on four hits with a season-high three walks and eight strikeouts to improve to 6-2.  Paxton has not allowed more than two runs in his last eight starts. His career ERA is now 1.73 in 14 big league starts.

“I keep telling you guys, ‘he’s the glue to this rotation,'” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He is not a fluke. This young man is good. He’s the Big Canadian. He’s not scared. He’s pretty tough. I thought, tonight, he proved that.”

Seattle gave Paxton an early lead to work with.

With two outs in the top of the first, Robinson Cano flicked his bat at a 1-0 fastball on the outside corner from A’s starter Jason Hammel, hitting over the wall in left field for his 13th homer of the season.

“Honestly, I thought it was going to be double,” Cano said. “I thought it was over his head. Good thing it went out.”

Seattle made it 2-0 in the second inning when Kyle Seager led off with a walk and later came around to score when Mike Zunino’s fly ball to left field that dropped just out of the reach of shortstop Jed Lowrie.

But Paxton couldn’t make the 2-0 lead hold up.

His command fell apart in the third inning. With one out, he walked Sam Fuld and Coco Crisp to put himself in trouble. After coming back to strike out Jonny Gomes, he gave up a RBI single to Josh Donaldson and walked Derek Norris to load the bases.

He finally struck out Jed Lowrie on a 96 mph fastball to end the marathon inning. Paxton let out a scream reminiscent of Felix Hernandez after the strikeout.

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It could have been a calamity. Instead it was a veteran escape act.

The A’s tied it up in the fourth inning. Nate Freiman led off with a single to center. With Geovany Soto forced out of the game with back spasms, it meant that designated hitter Derek Norris had to take over the catching duties, which meant that Hammel had to bat in Soto’s place with the DH forfeited. Hammel was called on to bunt and he put down a perfect sacrifice bunt.

Third baseman Kyle Seager made a poor decision and tried to throw to second to get the lead runner. The throw was low and wouldn’t have gotten the runner either. With runners on first an second, Nick Punto moved Freiman to third with a fielder’s choice on a nice diving stop from Seager. Sam Fuld scored the run with a bunted ground out to second base.

Even with the run allowed, it was clear Paxton had mended some of the command problems. He worked a scoreless fifth and sixth inning with his 100th of 101 pitches, registering 98 mph.

The Mariners broke the 2-2 tie in the fifth inning giving Paxton a chance for the win. Morrison yanked a towering fly ball down the right field line off of Hammel that cleared the wall for his eighth homer of the season to make it 3-2.

Morales added a big insurance run in the sixth inning, belting a two-out solo homer over the wall in right-center off of one-time Mariner and Walla Walla native Eric O’Flaherty to make it 4-2.

Seattle got its usual solid effort from the bullpen. Recent call-up Carson Smith pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings and Charlie Furbush got a big out, getting Adam Dunn to fly out to left with a runner on to end the eighth inning.

Fernando Rodney made things interesting in the ninth as he has been known to do. He gave up singles to the first two hitters he faced. But he calmly came back retiring the next three hitters, including strikeouts out Josh Reddick and Josh Donaldson to notch his 45th save of the season – tying the club record set by Kaz Sasaski in 2001.

“I don’t know where we would be without him,” McClendon said of Rodney.

Rodney had no idea of the milestone.

“They told me after the game, but I didn’t know it was the¬†record,” he said. “It’s good. It’s a lot of saves, 45. But we have 16 games left, and I want to continue to pitch good.”

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