It was an ace’s moment.
And it was provided by a Seattle Mariners pitcher not named Felix Hernandez.
James Paxton, fresh of the disabled list, was needed to rescue a Mariners starting rotation decimated by injuries. On Wednesday he delivered, producing 51/3 innings of flawless pitching in a 5-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies, a performance that made a mockery of the idea he had just returned from nearly a month out because of a strained forearm.
No, the King isn’t dead, but a prince has emerged as a legitimate claimant to the throne.
For more than a decade now we in the Pacific Northwest have viewed Hernandez as the highest-ranking — and often only — member of royalty on the Seattle Mariners’ pitching staff. Even his nickname, King Felix, illustrated exactly where Hernandez stood in the Mariners’ regal family tree.
But through two months of the 2017 season Paxton is showing that Seattle may just have a succession plan in place.
It’s hard to think of Hernandez as anything but the ace of the Mariners’ staff. Since arriving in Seattle in 2005 as a precocious 19-year-old, Hernandez has been the man the Mariners wanted on the mound when it mattered most.
He’s the Mariners’ all-time career leader in starts (364), wins (156), innings pitched (2,4421/3) and strikeouts (2,286), which pretty much covers everything for a starter. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 2010, finished as runner-up in 2009 and 2014 and is a six-time All-Star, illustrating just how highly he’s regarded throughout all of baseball.
Heck, he even has his own section of the stands at Safeco Field, a piece of foul territory in left field transforming into the King’s Court whenever he starts, awash in fans wearing yellow t-shirts and waiving “K” placards.
But has Hernandez’s reign as monarch of the Mariners’ staff come to an end? Paxton sure seems to be playing the role of the usurper.
Paxton was fantastic for the Mariners through the first five weeks of the season as he opened with 23 consecutive scoreless innings and was unscored upon in four of his first five outings. With Seattle struggling out of the gate, Paxton’s pitching was one of the few bright spots in what was an otherwise gray and foreboding start to the season for Mariners fans.
And if anyone thought a stint on the disabled list was going to derail Paxton’s success, they were wrong. Paxton looked every bit the dominating pitcher from April. His fastball velocity remained in the high 90s, and he hit his spots with all his pitches. His outing was cut short at 74 pitches as the Mariners were cautious in his first start back, but he still allowed just three hits, no walks and struck out six in his 5 1/3 frames.
While Paxton’s numbers are gaudy, he also passes the eye test. The Canadian left-hander made mechanical adjustments while at triple-A Tacoma last season, lowering his arm slot. The result was an extra five mph on his fastball and additional bite to his slider. He’s now one of the more intimidating starting pitchers in baseball, with an arsenal that includes a fastball that’s averaging 95.9 mph, a velocity that ranks fourth in the majors among pitchers with at least 40 innings. At times opposing batters look completely overmatched.
Those all seem like characteristics of an ace to me.
This is all happening in conjunction with Hernandez continuing to exhibit signs of decline. Hernandez’s numbers have gradually fallen off the past three seasons as the Venezuelan righty has reached the age of 31. Both his strikeout rate (7.43 per nine innings) and average fastball velocity (91.1 mph) remain toward the bottom of his career range. No longer is Hernandez automatically able to put a batter away with two strikes the way he could five years ago.
And Hernandez’s legendary durability has again come into question. Between 2006 — Hernandez’s first full season in the majors — and 2015 Hernandez made 30 or more starts every season. But last season he spent his first significant time on the disabled list with a calf strain. He rededicated himself to getting into shape during the offseason, but he again finds himself on the disabled list, this time with bursitis in his right shoulder that’s kept him out since late April.
These sure appear to be signs of a monarch at risk of being overthrown.
There was a moment late in April in which all these forces coalesced. On April 25 the Mariners suffered a devastating loss to the Detroit Tigers. Not only was Seattle whupped 19-9, Hernandez was removed after two innings and subsequently placed on the disabled list. With promising rookie right fielder Mitch Haniger also leaving the game injured, and with the Mariners already in a hole in the standings, it felt like a death blow for the season.
These are the moments when a team needs its ace, when a team’s top pitcher takes matters into his own hands to single-handedly stop the bleeding. In that past that would have been Hernandez’s job. But in this instance it was Paxton who was scheduled to start the next day. Just when Seattle needed it most Paxton turned in a performance to ease the sting of the previous night’s debacle, delivering seven scoreless innings as the Mariners beat Detroit 8-0 to stem the tide.
Look, it’s too early to write Hernandez off just yet. With 10-plus years as Seattle’s ace under his belt Hernandez, who’s expected back from his injury shortly, has earned some leeway with regards to his title as the King. And Paxton still has to prove he can stay healthy, so Hernandez shouldn’t be stripped of the moniker just yet.
But given the way Paxton is performing, it seems the passing of the title of Mariners ace is imminent.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.