Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Astros, the Mariners have four players with an OPS over .400 (Segura, Seager, Canó, and Haniger). Not OBP, OPS. You know, the one where .700 is still not great. The Mariners allowing an average of average of 3 1⁄3 runs per game would be lovely if they weren’t averaging just 1 1⁄3 per game offensively. Of course this will improve, but it’s exasperating to see the one thing we expected to produce reliably - the middle of the order - land face-first into a cow pie. Thankfully, for six innings last night we were also treated to a different storyline: the dominance of an ace.
James Paxton was not the best we’ve seen him. No, that might be this beauty against the Angels last August, the unfortunate elbow game, where he bedizened Mike Trout in a sombrero of purest gold. Tonight Paxton’s pitch count got the best of him, and in reaching 100 pitches through six innings he was unable to protect his shutout as thoroughly as he’d hoped. Still, six innings of shutout ball without your best stuff, against a lineup that might make the Killer B’s nervous, in a stadium with dimensions that evoke Henry B. Herts? Impressive. Keeping Houston off the scoreboard despite two of your five K’s resulting in the runner reaching anyways after the ball kicked away from the catcher? Exceptional. Having your bullpen and offense let you down despite your brilliance?
Same Old M’s That happens to a lot of aces when they’re backed up by pitchers who, in contrast, look less impressive. The wins will come.
In Seattle, we’ve become accustomed to few creature comforts in our long playoff drought. The sense that once every five days dominance awaited us, however, has been a privilege we’ve enjoyed for most of the last decade. Of the many changes we’ve seen in the last two years, the most disheartening has been seeing Félix Hernández decline to the point that his starts are as much a source of anxiety as they are a delight.
Which Félix will show up?
Will his velocity be there?
Will his control abandon him again?
Does he still have It in him?
That’s not how you want to feel about your ace. Hopefully on Saturday the King’s groin will be fully healed and he’ll continue where he left off - looking great against this same Houston lineup. Fortunately for the Mariners, their new ace has arrived in full. Paxton can dominate a game easily, with his 95 mph fastball climbing, Verlander-like, to 97, 98, 99, 100 as the game wears on. His cutter shames katanas. As Zach outlined excellently in his recap last night, his knuckle-curve baffles the best hitters in the league.
All offseason we spoke about how if Paxton just stayed healthy he’d be the best starter on the Mariners’ roster. Seeing it actualized, however, is a comfort that I did not anticipate being so soothing.
If the 3-4-5 of the Mariners order continues to hit .121, none of this will matter. Hell, if they hit .221 it won’t matter. The projectability of the 2017 Mariners as a playoff competitor depends on their best players continuing to be good, and James Paxton looking like an ace. The offense has to do its part to make that meaningful. In a game where little went right, however, James Paxton’s so-so was enough to baffle one of the best teams in the league last night. When he has it all going he’s going to be a treat to watch. Entering a game believing, no matter the opponent or the state of the Mariners at that moment, that a win is clearly attainable, purely on the quality of the person listed as the starting pitcher is something we’ve missed most of the last two years.
The Mariners have an ace again, and damn it feels good.