SEATTLE — For some reason, pitching at the big-league level seems to be easier for James Paxton than pitching at the Class AAA-level.
The hard-throwing left-hander turned in a brilliant performance for the Mariners in Seattle’s 4-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night at Safeco Field.
Paxton tossed seven shutout innings, allowing just four hits and striking out 10 and walking none, and doing it against a Royals team fighting for its playoff life and desperate for wins.
His powerful performance was a gut punch to the Royals’ playoff chances, putting them at 83-74, now four games back in the wild card race with fives games to play in the season.
“James was really good tonight,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said. “He was really consistent. He was strong throughout all the way to the last pitch. He commanded the ball game.”
It was easily Paxton’s best performance since being called up on Sept. 1. His previous three starts were pretty solid as well. With the victory, he improved to 3-0 on the season and lowered his earned run average to 1.50. He’s the first Mariners rookie to start 3-0 since Freddy Garcia in 1999.
“I just felt really good,” Paxton said. “I was just locked in … . (Mike) Zunino called a great game and everything went great.”
Paxton’s success is surprising on some levels. There is no questioning his talent. Blessed with a mid- to high-90s fastball and nasty breaking ball, he’s always had the potential to be good. But his first season in Class AAA with the Tacoma Rainiers was a roller coaster of ups and downs, good stretches of quality starts followed by three-inning walk-fests. He couldn’t always find sustained consistency within his starts. He’d pitch two outstanding innings and then lose his command in the third inning.
What’s the difference now?
“I think his focus is just a lot better now,” said Zunino, who caught him for the first months in Tacoma and saw the struggles. “He’s sort of zeroing in on a smaller target and his mistakes are a lot smaller. He’s not missing on the other side of the plate or missing drastically off the plate. He’s missing by an inch or two. That’s why he’s having success.”
Basically, Paxton’s control has turned into command. He isn’t quite sure why his focus is so much better. He thinks it might be the bright lights of the big leagues.
“It could just be the electricity of being out there,” he said. “It raises your intensity that much more and I think it helps me to get more locked in. I just get so locked in and so focused.”
Paxton was electric early on. He allowed two first-inning singles, and then retired 14 of the next 15 batters he faced. He had eight strikeouts in the first five innings.
“It’s nice to see him show some consistency,” Wedge said. “He’s shown some of the intangibles you like to see. His poise, his presence, he doesn’t let the game speed up on him.”
With the offseason looming and the Mariners’ future rotation for 2014 largely unsettled outside of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and possibly Erasmo Ramirez, Paxton has forced his name into the conversation along with Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Going out there and doing what I’m doing is putting myself in pretty good position for next year.”
The Mariners gave Paxton a little run support, doing so against a left-handed starting pitcher, which hasn’t happened often this season. Veteran lefty Bruce Chen has toyed with the Mariners in the past, but they got to him early on Tuesday.
Kendrys Morales gave Seattle a 1-0 lead with an RBI single in the first inning. Seattle added three more runs with one swing of the bat in the fifth inning. Justin Smoak crushed a three-run homer to deep left field to make it 4-0. It was Smoak’s 19th homer of the season — tying a career high — and his second-homer batting right-handed in three days.
“He hit that about as good as you can hit a ball,” Wedge said. “That was probably best ball he’s hit right-handed all year. It shows you what he’s capable of.”
Smoak, who’s had his share of long fly balls die in the cold marine air of the Northwest, said he could only remember hitting a few balls harder than that right-handed at Safeco.
“It feels great,” Smoak said. “To be honest, I hit it and I don’t know if I looked straight into the lights, but I didn’t know where it went.”
After being a non-factor batting from the right side Smoak is hoping to take this late success into next season.
“I’m just trying to keep my bat in the zone longer,” he said. “I’m just trying to let the ball get deeper and use the whole ballpark.”
After retiring the side in order in the seventh, Paxton exited the mound to a nice ovation from the 12,528 in attendance. His night was done after 97 pitches. Yoervis Medina pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and Danny Farquhar pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to end the game.