Back in January, I wrote about Paxton for our 40 in 40 series. It was one of the first pieces I'd done at any length for LL, about someone who projected to be a major contributor on the team, and I wanted to do it justice. I spent weeks researching, turning up articles written about him in high school and college, trying to learn about the man we know mostly as a meme (Sad Paxton, Dadgut, etc.). I read about how he'd lost his eligibility to finish out his senior season, how his dad caught his bullpens while his friends played on without him, his stint in the Independent League. There's something about lost years that fascinates me. No one likes to talk about them, but in many ways, those years are the crucible that shape a whole person, the shadow-selves that simmer under our skin. Tonight, after walking a difficult journey that saw him make stops on the DL, in the minor leagues, and a disastrous first start back in the majors, James Paxton stood tall on the mound, commanded his shadow-self, and rained the hottest hellfire down on the Indians.
The game did not begin auspiciously. Paxton's first fastball at 98 missed low, and Rajai Davis punched his second pitch, a 97 mph fastball that just grazed the bottom of the zone, out to Ketel Marte, who promptly booted it. Oh. So it was going to be that kind of a night. Davis stole second and then Jason Kipnis, on a 2-2 count, knocked an 89 mph cutter out to Marte, who again booted it, and both runners were safe. Oh. So it was going to be THAT kind of night. Francisco Lindor took Paxton's first pitch offering and sent it to second baseman Shawn O'Malley for a force out that moved the runners up with one out, and it was looking to be another calamitous first inning for Mariner pitching.
But James Paxton is sick of being Frodo. James Paxton wants to be motherfucking Gandalf.
Mike Napoli stepped up to the plate and Paxton began measuring him for a golden sombrero. After throwing Napoli a 92 mph fastball in the dirt, Paxton followed that up with a 98 heater on the outside corner for a whiff, then a 100 mph fireball for another whiff. Napoli managed a foul pop on the next 100 mph fastball steaming across the plate at him, before Paxton put him away with a beautifully located 91 mph cutter on the outside corner. He disposed of Carlos Santana on two pitches and suddenly the crisis was averted and Paxton was punching his glove and showing actual human emotion and there was a 0 on the scoreboard. And lo, there was much rejoicing at LL:
José Ramírez tried to bunt his way on base to begin the second but Paxton was not having any of that, hustling right off the mound to nail Ramírez at first like he was trying to sneak out after curfew (Dadgut lives on even if you are Crossfit Dad now, James). For the first few innings, Paxton was as efficient and deadly as a cyanide pill. He didn't get to a three-ball count until he had been through the order once; he didn't have his first walk until the third inning, when he already had two outs (and one of the balls in that at-bat to Kipnis was questionable).
Paxton's only real rough inning was the fourth, in which he gave up a single to Santana followed by a double to Ramírez. Santana managed to hustle around to score because everyone in the damn league knows: a) the Mariners' outfielder arms are currently those sticky hands you get out of quarter machines; and b) Chris Iannetta is...shaky defensively. Despite a strong relay from Marte, Iannetta dropped the ball at home plate and the run scored, while meanwhile Ramírez scooted along to third. Juan Uribe (which is what happens when you order the Beltre and tell them to supersize it) then was able to send a sac fly to right field and the crew of tiny men who control Nelson Cruz's body were unable to hoist the rigging in time to throw out the runner at home. The only other mar on Paxton's record was a mistake pitch to Rajai Davis in the fifth that Pax left too high in the zone at 91 mph and through some combination of science/witchcraft/vengeful baseball gods, the ball sailed over the fence. He would pitch through the sixth, ending with 109 pitches (not great) but just one walk to ten strikeouts, which will certainly earn him some accolades from DIPOTUS. And even though his pitch count was high, the velocity looked effortless; pitch number 100 was a 98 mph fastball in the lower third of the zone that Ramírez swung right through.
Unfortunately, the other side has their redemption story, too. After losing his starting spot and gaining it back, Trevor Bauer dominated the Mariners hitters, who often looked like they were swinging soggy baguettes at offending flies, with about that level of success. Ketel Marte had a single and a stolen base and was very sorry about those defensive miscues earlier (and I wouldn't worry about the errors. He had a couple right at the beginning of the season, remember, and then has been fine since), and then Aoki singled to drive him home, because he is still on his Revenge Against Nathan Bishop Tour 2016. Sadly, the Mariners were unable to string together hits when it mattered. Seth and Robi both went 0-for-4, and for Canó that signals the end of his league-leading on-base streak. Chris Iannetta left whatever magic spirit of OBP inhabited him in Texas at Love Field, and Adam Lind continues to look like he has been conscripted to be a baseball player instead of living out the dream of millions of kids, squinting out into the field like he's in the back of a wagon traveling across Kansas in the middle of the Dust Bowl. Get it together, you pajama-clad goblins. I'm trying to tell a redemption story here.
*Also, tonight marked the debut of Edwin Díaz and it was, in a word, awesamazcrizazzlefantasticosuperduperpants. I am not going to spill too many words on it because that is a joy best savored for another day, which Scott Servais understands, as he put MiMo in to tidy up the place in the final two innings (who, for his part, showed he is back to being Captain Consistent Pitch-to-Contact Groundball-Outs and hey actually he had three strikeouts, because 85-90 looks like molasses after you've been staring at triple digits all night). It was just one inning for Díaz, but it was dazzling enough to capture the attention of my mom, who doesn't really follow the team closely but texted me "this kid is [flame emojis]!" He sure is, mom.