The return of James Paxton was not without its moments of grace.
After taking the mound for the first time since straining a tendon in his middle finger (seriously, even our metaphors are turning against us), the 26-year old Canadian lefty tossed on a radiant blue and gold jersey, reflecting in its freshness if not what could have been then what has still yet to be, and then he fidgeted with his hat. Under an overcast sky, the man who was once hyped as one-third of the most terrifying group of pitching prospects in the game may have thought about all the time he missed this year, what the team's performance in his absence says about his value, and what it meant for him to still have, ostensibly, the best years of his career ahead of him.
It may have done him good to hear the warm, if not tepid welcome he received from a half-empty Safeco Field, still reeling from the morning's surprising Seahawks loss. He had pitched in front of larger crowds before--his back combusting in front of a sold out Safeco crowd during last year's home opener--but this return to action may have felt a little less intimidating surrounded by a smaller group of digesting mimosas and breakfast cereal. In any case, you know he had to feel good. Great, in fact. After completing his warmup routine with new Mariners catcher Steve Baron, Paxton coated his hand in rosin, let the bag fall back to the ground under the weight of failed expectations, turned his face to the sky, and smiled.
James Paxton was a Mariner once again.
Unfortunately, his outing didn't go quite as well as he, Lloyd, you, Dave Sims, and just about anyone else not on the Colorado Rockies had hoped. Paxton ended up lasting only three innings, due in part to a low pitch count but also due in part to walks such as this one:
and strikeouts that looked like this:
It's not that Paxton was a mess, out there performing only as a shadow of himself. After he got Charlie Blackmon to ground out on the second pitch of the game, the Rockies started to make him work more and more and more for every single out. His command was obviously off, as you can see from the above walk to LeMahieu, but his velocity was right where it should be and he wasn't really throwing any junk or anything. In fact, all things considered, it was a pretty encouraging result. He hasn't thrown in the bigs since May, struggled during his rehab outings, and was able to enter a team not under the weight of pressure to contend but with opportunity to just throw a bunch of fastballs and see where the Seattle air takes them. That only 36 of his 66 pitches were strikes is disquieting; that he threw 36 strikes at all this late in the season is something altogether different. If that's too positive then go look at J.A. Happ's page on Fangraphs right now.
Paxton was obviously gassed in the fourth, after putting two men on following a ground rule double to Wilin Rosario and a walk to Justin Morneau. Lloyd did the slow trot out, giving the ball to Maykol Guiape who proceeded to be the field general of bases-loading bunt single with no outs, an overthrown force out attempt at home from an overeager Kyle Seager, a successful bizarre force-out-run-down sequence off a laboring Marte, an intentional walk, and finally an incredibly lucky unassisted double play thanks to one Robinson Cano. If you ever find a better sequence of events to poke a hole in the argument of pitcher wins or earned runs, then please alert me to its existence.
The Mariners got their only runs on the day later in the fourth, after Ketel Marte reached over into the opposite batter's box to slap a Kyle Kendrick cutter into centerfield, then taking second with Nelson Cruz up to bat a little later. With two outs, Robinson Cano earned himself a four-pitch walk. Up walked Trumbo.
The Mariners were very obviously playing for one this afternoon. I'm not sure if that's because Kyle Kendrick was tearing through them or if it's just what Lloyd usually does in September with the young guys out on the paths. In either case, Ketel Marte had the green light all day, and he used it to take third with Trumbo watching pitches dance all out of the zone. He walked to load the bases, but this story could have gone in a completely different direction.
I'm of course kidding here because if you're actually going to get upset about a .479 team taking risks on the basepaths with speedy kids in September, then I have no idea how you survived the past decade of Mariners baseball. Anyway, Seth Smith, hit ball good, do thing, etc. Cano was a little shook up on the slide home to score the second run for the M's, but it was nothing serious. What it was, on the other hand, was a perfect analogy for this game and the entire year. Something frightening after something wonderful, with neither things being of any consequence in the longer scheme of events.
After Guiape's little fiasco in the fourth, the bullpen had themselves a pretty great afternoon, giving up only two hits during their entire collective outing. To open the eighth, James Jones was asked to bunt, because...why not? The pitch was dead-heat over the middle-right of the plate, and Jones, a professional baseball player for the Seattle Mariners organization, did exactly what you would expect in this situation by popping it straight up in the air to Rockies' second baseman DJ LeMahieu. To his credit, it was a little high in the zone. To my credit, I just used the words "Seattle Mariners" and "bunt" in the same paragraph and you knew what the result was going to be even before your eyes got to the end. What was that, James?
Something like that.
But then up to the plate came another certain young player known for speed on the basepaths. Instead of pop-bunting out on the third pitch he saw, Ketel Marte drew an 8-pitch walk in what appeared to be a pretty masterful understanding not only of the strike zone, but also of the way said strike zone was being called by home plate umpire Jordan Baker. Two of the pitches he saw for balls were arguably scratching the bottom of the plate, or at least would have been on a good day. Baker, who somehow didn't get the memo that getaway day zones are bigger (It's getaway day, not getherealittlelonger day), was having none of it.
Immediately after this, Kyle Seager stepped to the plate and looked at a few pitches before, well, just, ugh look watch it it's actually really neat and great.
The Mariners couldn't recover from any of this, and before almost killing John Axford in the ninth, went home losers, returning to 5 games under .500, and are now set to cap off the remaining however-many-games remain between jogging around in circles and finding the next Billy Beane. Onward and upward, as we used to say.