Marco Gonzales’ profile picture on his Twitter account shows former University of Washington defensive lineman Vita Vea carrying Gonzales’ pitching pal, Wade LeBlanc, in his arms.
Gonzales and LeBlanc also trade inside jokes on Instagram, sometimes involving James Paxton. They’ll comment about how “neat” their start was that night, or how much they enjoy sports and the qualities of sportsmen and teammates.
It’s been a good time for these three Mariners starters so far in 2018, and in turn, for the Mariners rotation. Gonzales, LeBlanc and Paxton are 1-2-3 among Mariners starters in earned-run averge, opponent batting average and WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched). Gonzales leads the Mariners starting rotation in ERA (3.41), with LeBlanc (3.63) and Paxton (3.70) close behind. Paxton has the most strikeouts (155).
“We all really use stuff differently and sequence pitches differently,” LeBlanc said, “but it’s been fun to be a part of.”
To illustrate the contrast, the 33-year-old LeBlanc’s fastball typically travels 87 mph these days, the 26-year-old Gonzales throws around 91 mph, while 29-year-old Paxton pumps it in at an average of 96 mph.
Let’s look more at these three lefties:
The questions surrounding Gonzales concerned being able to get through a lineup three times and how he could incorporate his cutter to his arsenal. It was a pitch he hadn’t used since he underwent Tommy John surgery two years ago.
For those answers, consider Gonzales’ July 5 start against the Los Angeles Angels.
He’d already broken through that third-time-through barrier and was coming off his first career complete game (one out away from a shutout) his previous start. But his next outing against the Angels was possibly more revealing.
Gonzales pitched six innings, allowed five hits and one run with seven strikeouts, but it was the way he navigated those innings, doing so with a weak curveball and without his trusty changeup. He had to compete.
“I haven’t always been that pitcher,” Gonzales said, “and, frankly, being healthy and having a new approach this year has been a huge help with that. The old me probably would have made it through three (innings) and maybe called it a game and get taken out.”
Then Gonzales tossed seven shutout innings his next start, also against the Angels, despite being hit with a comebacker off his calf that left him pacing in the dugout and taking pain medication to get through the rest of the game.
“He’s been huge, no question,” Servais said. “You go back to coming into spring training and making some adjustments and just being healthy and feeling like he was ready to go from the get-go. A lot of times younger players get on a roll and they say, ‘I got this figured out.’ Marco has not done that. He has not backed off the pedal at all, and he’s going to have a lot left in the tank as we get going in the second half.”
His new approach has mostly included the simple art of being aggressive.
LeBlanc is the one with the massive trophy in his locker. His two boys — Jackson and Eli, who are frequently around the Mariners clubhouse with Natalie LeBlanc, all wearing “LeBlanc” jerseys — got it for him the day before Father’s Day, when LeBlanc later pitched 7 2⁄3 shutout innings against the Boston Red Sox.
He’s a dad, a journeyman and Jamie Moyer-look-alike with a recent contract extension that will keep him with the Mariners through the 2019 season.
And, yes, in an era where velocity is king, LeBlanc has got it done with what Servais once coined “moxie.”
“That was a really neat moment,” LeBlanc said after his start against Boston. “Guys who throw 86, they don’t really get standing ovations very often.”
LeBlanc had a 2.89 ERA in his first 12 starts after joining the Mariners’ rotation in May filling in for right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who headed to the disabled list with a right teres major strain.
Paxton has shown every sign of taking the next step in his career maturation. He’s the Mariners’ ace, equipped with his first career no-hitter and seven games this season with at least 10 strikeouts, including a career-high 16 Ks against the Athletics.
But the second half will really prove where he’s at. Paxton is expected to return from the disabled list this week from back stiffness that took him out during the first inning of his most recent start in Los Angeles.
After missing significant time each of the past two seasons with injury, he’s already made 20 starts this season, which is only four short of the career-high 24 he made last year.
“For me it’s always finding that timing and rhythm in my delivery,” Paxton said. “I’m a big guy with long leverage. It takes me a lot to time things up. That’s usually my biggest thing — getting everything firing at the right time and finding the explosion out of my hand and getting everything connected.”
And when Paxton is on?
“It’s tough. It’s nasty. He’s good, more than we could bear,” said Royals manager Ned Yost. “(He throws a) 97-mph fastball, (has a) really, really good curveball, commands the ball well, busts fastballs in on your hands, fastballs away, back-foot breaking balls …”
Paxton is one of the few pitchers in the league who throws harder as the game goes on.
“It’s pretty rare — those guys are top-of-the-rotation guys … and we’re lucky to have one.
“We really saw it come together last year. He took a big step forward with his mound presence, and it’s something we talked about with him early in his career and my tenure here as he tried to figure things out. It’s intimidating when you throw 97-98 mph — and you’re from Canada, you have a tattoo on your forearm, why not let it go? Use it to your advantage.”
Now it’s about staying healthy.
“That’s the only thing that’s been short in his career,” Servais said before the season. “The stuff is there, the development of his pitches, the development that he’s had mentally and how he approaches and attacks hitters — it’s all there.”