By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s only five innings over two spring starts, and the Seattle Mariners are still three weeks away from their season opener, except … well, just keep an eye on James Paxton in tonight’s game against Arizona.
Maybe this is merely the next step for the big lefty who turned heads last September by making his big-league debut with four strong starts against good clubs.
“His confidence is just soaring,” pitching coach Rick Waits said. “And it didn’t start now. It started in the middle of last season when he felt he had taken that last little step and was ready get his feet established in the big leagues.”
It isn’t news that Paxton tweaked his delivery midway through last season at Class AAA Tacoma by softening the exaggerated backward angle in the initial stage. Or that the effect of doing so was nearly immediate.
“I shortened up my delivery on my back side,” he explained. “That helped me repeat a little better. It’s big.”
It might be everything.
No longer, it seemed, was Paxton plagued by a lack of command while searching for a consistent release point from the many moving parts of his 6-foot-4 frame.
“It allowed for his arm to be on time consistently,” Waits said. “That’s the main thing. He’s functionally sound since this happened. The main thing is it just made his off-speed pitches better.
“It could also increase his velocity, but that wasn’t important. He already had velocity. But the consistency of his off-speed stuff is better.”
The Mariners saw sufficient improvement in Paxton’s late outings at Tacoma to reward him with those four starts.
And he was, well, dominant.
Paxton allowed just four earned runs and 15 hits in 24 innings over those four games. It’s worth noting, too, those starts all came against good clubs: Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Detroit and Kansas City.
“Getting those four starts in September was big for me,” he said. “It was really a confidence booster. … “Taking that into the offseason, and feeling good … just knowing I can go out there and do that, compete at that level, was a big plus for me.”
The Mariners could use a big plus in a rotation that is reeling this spring from injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker. Neither is expected to be available when the season starts March 31 against the Angels in Anaheim.
Iwakuma, 32, blossomed last season into an All-Star, but he is still nearly two weeks away from throwing in his recovery from a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand.
The plus is club officials anticipate his return, once he starts throwing, will merely be a matter of building his endurance to 90-plus pitches. That figures to be mid-April.
Walker is throwing again after being shut down for a week after a Feb. 27 examination by a specialist in Los Angeles confirmed inflammation in the bursa of his throwing shoulder.
All seems to be going well, but the Mariners will be cautious with Walker, a top prospect. He also seems unlikely to be ready to rejoin the rotation before mid-April.
The other member of the Mariners’ long-touted prospect trio, lefty Danny Hultzen, was optioned last week to Tacoma to continue his rehab from rotator-cuff surgery.
All of which puts the spotlight on Paxton, who yielded just two hits in five scoreless innings in his two previous outings. Perhaps most eye-catching, he has yet to issue a walk.
What more can he do?
“Other than throw strikes, work fast and don’t let them score?” manager Lloyd McClendon asked. “I’m not sure. He just needs to continue to pitch well. We haven’t made decisions after five innings.”
Waits said: “There’s no doubt we need a couple of guys to step up. You see all of the guys who are pitching. You’ve got (Erasmo) Ramirez. You’ve got (Blake) Beavan. You’ve got (Randy) Wolf. You’ve got (Scott) Baker.
“And Paxton, of course. Somebody has to step forward.”
Only one of those candidates is a power lefty.
“That’s hard to find,” Waits agreed, “especially someone who throws strikes and is consistently down in the zone. And he was at 94 (mph) the other day.”