ST. LOUIS — Could the talk of “The Big Three” live again? Mercifully, for the sake of the members of that now defunct moniker, let’s hope it does not. For the Seattle Mariners’ trio of pitching prospects — Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen — the nickname unfairly dubbed on them during the 2012 spring training became more burden than boast, leading to elevated expectations and unrealistic hopes for them to be in the big leagues by 2012.
The label seemed to have finally gone the way of “new Coke” and disappeared after none of the three made it to the big leagues in 2012.
But in this last month of the 2013 season, Walker and Paxton have made strong cases to be considered for the 2014 starting rotation.
On Saturday night, with 41,374 fans crammed into Busch Stadium, Paxton delivered a stellar performance, tossing six shutout innings, allowing just two hits while striking out five and walking two to lead the Mariners to a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. The win snapped a five-game Seattle losing streak.
“He was really good again today, obviously against a very good ballclub in their backyard with a big crowd in the middle of September,” manager Eric Wedge said of Paxton. “It was nice to see him step up like that.”
Paxton has allowed one run in two starts and 12 innings pitched. He is the second Mariners pitcher to open his big league career with back-to-back starts of at least six innings pitched with one or fewer runs allowed. Erik Hanson had back-to-back 7 1⁄3 inning outings, allowing no earned runs in 1988.
Paxton was the picture of calm on the mound. The 6-foot-5 Canadian is anything but demonstrative on the field or off of it. But even his own catcher Mike Zunino, who had caught him in Class AAA to start the season, had never seen him quite so serene.
“I think it’s the most relaxed and the best he’s pitched since I’ve been catching him,” Zunino said.
To Paxton that relaxed look was laser focus. He was so involved with Zunino and pitching to the glove that emotions or outside factors never crept into his mind.
“I was really locked in on Zunino,” Paxton said. “I didn’t notice the crowd much. I finally noticed how many people there were after they took me out of the game. I said to someone, ‘Oh, it’s loud, I guess there are a lot of people here, huh?’”
Paxton was sharp from the first pitch. He retired the first eight batters he faced. The first hit came from Cardinals rookie starting pitcher Michael Wacha, who hit a little dribbler to the right of the mound that Paxton couldn’t quite field. The only other trouble Paxton got into was in the fifth. He allowed a leadoff single to David Freese and later issued a two-out walk to pinch hitter, and former Mariner, Rob Johnson. But with two outs, he struck out Matt Carpenter swinging with an elevated 96 mph fastball.
“He’s able to do that because he is pitching down, down, down,” Wedge said. “When he does come up, they have to commit to it. That’s what you like to see with someone that has that type of fastball.”
Of course, many Mariners starters have given stellar outings only to see their win destroyed by lack of run support or bullpen implosion. At least for a night, it was different.
After failing to get a run against Wacha with bases loaded and one out in the third inning, Seattle picked up two runs in the fifth inning by taking advantage of Wacha’s wildness and playing a little small ball. Dustin Ackley singled to lead off the inning and then for some reason Wacha walked Paxton, who was trying to lay down a sacrifice bunt. It was a massive mistake by Wacha, since the odds of Paxton, who has not swung a bat in a game since age 13, getting down a bunt were somewhere in between slim and none.
With runners on first and second and no outs, Brad Miller put down a successful sacrifice bunt — a rare occurrence for the Mariners of late — to move the runners into scoring position.
Franklin Gutierrez made the strategy pay off, lacing a first-pitch double into left field to score both runs.
“It was very important right there,” said Gutierrez, who made one of the outs with bases loaded in the third. “We had men in scoring position and we had to score some runs. I don’t think we have to put any more pressure on ourselves, when we put that pressure on we don’t do anything. Obviously, we know we’ve been having some issues scoring runs lately.”
The two runs certainly didn’t feel safe for a Mariners team that has 12 walkoff losses on the season, the most recent just 24 hours before.
But Kendrys Morales provided a big insurance run in the eighth inning, blasting a leadoff solo homer to left-center field. His 22nd long ball of the season traveled an estimated 433 feet. And you could almost hear sighs of relief from Wedge and the Mariners bullpen as it landed into the sea of red-clad fans to make the score 3-0.
“Any time you get one more run when you are in a tight game it’s big for us, especially with all the young kids down in the bullpen,” Wedge said.
The Mariners gave back that run in the bottom of the inning when Charlie Furbush tossed a wild pitch by Zunino to score Carpenter.
But Seattle answered in the ninth. A leadoff walk from Ackley, a bunt base hit from Abraham Almonte, a wild pitch on another bunt attempt and a sacrifice fly from Carlos Triunfel netted a run.
Danny Farquhar came in and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning to pick up his 14th save of the season.