KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With the season winding down and starting pitchers beginning to reach their thresholds in terms of total innings pitched this season, the Seattle Mariners have decided to shift to a six-man pitching rotation over the next month in hopes of cutting back workloads of some pitchers.
Talented pitching prospect James Paxton was one of five players called up from Class AAA Tacoma on Tuesday with the rosters being expanded. Paxton will be the sixth pitcher added to the rotation. He will make his major league debut on Saturday at Safeco Field against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“It allows us to have some options and flexibility, which is a good thing this time of year,” manager Eric Wedge said.
It’s been an eventful three days for Paxton, who actually joined the team in Kansas City on Monday.
Paxton pitched two innings of relief on Sunday for Tacoma, and then was pulled by pitching coach Terry Clark.
“I was little bit surprised,” Paxton said.
Clark then told him to talk to Rainiers’ manager John Stearns.
“He said Stearns had something to tell me,” Paxton said. “(Stearns) told me in the dugout and I was able to give everyone hugs.”
But it got even better for the British Columbia native.
“It turned out that my parents were actually at the game,” he said. “They drove down to watch me pitch that day. I was able to call my dad down and I told him in the locker room. After the game, we were all able to go out and eat and celebrate. It was very cool to have them there and share that experience with them.”
Paxton posted an 8-11 record with 4.45 ERA in 28 appearances (26 starts) with the Rainiers. He struck out 131 batters, averaging 8.9 strikeouts per inning.
“It’s been an up and down season for me,” he said. “At the beginning of the year I struggled a little bit, learning the league. I got to know the batters better and got more confidence and rattled off some good outings. Then I had a couple rough ones, and then I feel like I finished pretty strong in that last little bit. I’m coming in feeling pretty good about my stuff and where I’m at.
The good outings included a complete game shutout in Tucson on July 8. In his last start with Tacoma, he pitched eight innings, giving up run on five hits and striking out seven.
Still, a September call-up wasn’t a given.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “I was hoping to get an opportunity. I’m really happy to be here.”
Paxton is far from a finished product. His command with his fastball and his trust in his secondary stuff must continue to improve for him to figure into the 2014 starting rotation plans.
“If he can command the fastball down in the zone, with the angle he has, they are going to swing at the curveball, the cutter and it’s going to follow suit,” pitching coach Carl Willis said.
Class AAA was a learning experience for Paxton. He wasn’t able to get by with velocity and stuff.
“Those guys won’t chase as much as Double A guys will,” Paxton said. “You have to be able to come into the zone and challenge them. The biggest thing I learned was trying to get guys out with less pitches. I’d always go deep in counts and not being able to go very far in game. Just pounding the zone early and getting that early contact is what allowed me to go deeper in the game.”
Wedge hopes the two or three starts Paxton makes will only help the process.
“It’s great to get those ‘firsts’ out of the way,” Wedge said. “He has worked hard to get here and deserves to be here. You get a chance to compete at the highest level and work off where you are from there.”
Besides Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, who never left the team, was recalled from Tacoma along with pitchers Hector Noesi and Chance Ruffin and infielder Carlos Triunfel.
Danny Hultzen made his first game appearance on the mound since June 27 on Sunday at Cheney Stadium, throwing two scoreless innings with three strikeouts for the Tacoma Rainiers. Hultzen, who is recovering from a second strain of his rotator cuff, will continue to keep building up arm strength as he prepares to pitch in the Arizona Fall League that starts in October.
He has a busy schedule the next week. He will throw a bullpen session today in Everett. On Saturday, he will throw a simulated game at Safeco Field or in Everett — depending on how the Aqua Sox do in the playoffs. That will be followed by another bullpen and then four or days off before reporting back to Arizona to continue his throwing regimen and then participate in the fall league.
After the second problem arose with his rotator cuff, the Mariners decided to reevaluate Hultzen’s mechanics and throwing regimen to see if there was an issue. They found that he had picked up the habit of dramatically throwing across his body with his plant foot not opening enough toward home plate. They’ve since made that correction and the results have been positive.
“This really put his arm slot in its strongest position and made it more repeatable for him to do that,” Willis said. “That takes strain off the shoulder. When you get inconsistent, sometimes you drop the elbow or get out too far, you are working muscles you aren’t used to working. The consistency of his arm slot is important.”