On this night, the Mariners lost a ballgame. Specifically, the Mariners lost a ballgame that should have been won. Not because of their record. Not because this has been the M’s strongest start in fifteen years. Not because of how much fun they have been to watch.
They should have won this game because of James Paxton.
I overuse the word “stellar.” To describe Paxton’s start tonight with such a word would not only be an understatement, it would be an error of the highest degree. James Paxton was more than stellar. He was superb. He was breathtakingly elegant in his deliveries; he was treacherously cunning in his command. The way he handled and struck out the A’s lineup, he was everything in between.
And strike them out he did.
James Paxton came into this game fearless. The Mariners starting pitching has had the worst first inning record in the American League; most home runs allowed, most earned runs, highest ERA. Paxton came in and utterly dismantled that narrative.
Paxton was nearly-immaculate in the first inning. He struck out Marcus Semien in three pitches with a fastball on the inside part of the strike zone, a fastball outside, and a low cutter that Semien could not have hit to save his life. He threw three consecutive fastballs down the middle to Chad Pinder, and struck him out in devastating fashion. Batting third, Jed Lowrie managed to extend his 0-2 count to scribble in a single to ruin what could have been, but with a little help from Mike Zunino and his fanciful framing abilities, Big Maple was able to strike out the side on a failed check swing by Khris Davis.
From there it continued. Matt Chapman lead off the second inning and was out on two pitches after lining out to left field. Mark Canha struck out in five pitches. It only took Paxton four pitches to strike out Stephen Piscotty.
In the third inning, the true fun began. Paxton stuck out Jonathan Lucroy on three pitches. Jake Smolinski flew out to Ichiro in three pitches. Marcus Semien came back up to the plate and struck out once again on three pitches. Nine pitches, frame over. Paxton had faced ten batters, and struck out seven of them. He was on pace not only to surpass the season strikeout threshold for a starting pitcher (14 strikeouts), he could have reached the twenty strikeout record held by Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens.
Just as the ball was coming to life in the hands of James Paxton, the Mariners bats came alive in the bottom of the frame. Leading off and on a 2-1 count, Ryon Healy hit his fourth home run since Saturday by taking a perfectly positioned 91 mph fastball and driving it into the stands in center field at 103 mph. Oakland A’s starter Brett Anderson was rattled, and proceeded to allow a walk to Ichiro Suzuki, who then advanced into scoring position on a Dee Gordon grounder. Ichiro was able to score on a near-double by Jean Segura, who hit a line drive to left field but was tagged out sliding into second after the ball returned a little quicker than expected from the outfield. Robinson Canó then quickly lined out on the first pitch. It didn’t matter. Another frame of The James Paxton Show was about to start.
The game became a one-sided pitcher’s duel after the third inning. Mariners bats were quiet, though not in the way the A’s bats were utterly silenced. Every A’s batter Paxton faced, save for Jed Lowrie, struck out at least once. Pinder and Piscotty each struck out three times. Alleged Mariner-destroyer Khris Davis, who always seems to make fools of Mariners pitchers, looked lost at the plate. Luckily tonight, he had James Paxton on the mound, there to carefully guide him back to the dugout, where he would be safe from striking out a fourth time.
Paxton went 7.0 innings tonight. He threw a total of 105 pitches. 80 of his pitches were strikes. 27 of those strikes were powerfully swung on and exquisitely missed. He allowed only one walk. He struck out a career-high 16 batters, which is also the most strikeouts by any pitcher in a single game this season. This was his night.
But baseball games are more than seven innings.
The top of the eight began like the game itself; delightfully promising. Paxton had one of the best starts of the season under his belt and Juan Nicasio was to come in to relieve him. On the first pitch of the inning to Marcus Semien, he was able to collect his first out via a flyout to Mitch Haniger in right field.
And the uneasiness began to brew.
Throughout Nicasio’s major league career, he’s been able to allocate pitches in an effort to garner ground balls. He’s able to get batters to hit grounders almost 45% of the time. This year however, that percentage has been down to 32%, and his flyball rate has skyrocketed almost as high as the flyballs he allows; a horrifying 54%, up from 32%.
Needless to say, flyballs from Nicasio are no good. Especially not in this game. The next batter Nicasio faced was Matt Joyce, who was pinch hitting for Pinder and doubled on a, you guessed it, flyball that landed in the gap in right-center field and bounced out into the stands. As fate would have it, Jed Lowrie, the only Athletic immune to the Paxton strikeout, was up to bat.
Nicasio threw a fastball; it was high.
He threw another; it was high.
He threw one down the middle, and it ended up high, in the air, and it towered over the field and over the fence and came crashing down into the stands the way hope tends to do in dire situations.
Jed Lowrie hit a two run homer to tie the game, welcoming agony and despair into Safeco Field. Nicasio crawled out of the inning by retiring Khris Davis and Matt Chapman, both via flyout.
But baseball games don’t end in ties. Like a whisper in wind, those who believed began their hope-filled utterances.
Blake Treinen was now pitching for the A’s and the inning began with Ichiro grounding out. But then, Dee managed to squeeze in a single. Jean Segura then hit a double, on a reversed call at second, advancing Dee to scoring position 90 feet from home. With first base open, Canó was intentionally walked. The bases were loaded with only one out. This was it. This was the chance to redeem.
Nelson Cruz went up to the plate and four pitches later, walked back to the dugout, golden sombrero in tow. Mitch Haniger, wanting desperately to be the hero we all know him to be, struck out. Three swings, three misses.
There was still one inning left and with Edwin Díaz on the mound, the Mariners were only three outs away from their shot at walk-off glory.
Until they weren’t. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Díaz allowed his first home run of the season Mark Canha and the A’s were up 3-2. He may have retired the next three batters on ten pitches, but the damage was done. On this night, the Mariners hoped for Sugar, but they got salt.
But there was still a hope. A dying hope. A Mariner hope.
In the bottom of the ninth, Kyle Seager leadoff and battled his way into a full count, but grounded out to first base. Mike Zunino followed and wriggled out a five pitch walk to get on base.
This was it. Guillermo Heredia was in to pinch run for Zunino. The wheels were in motion. This was the chance; the real chance. Not the bases-loaded-in-the-eighth-inning chance. Ryon Healy, the winning run, who hit the glorious home run just six innings earlier, was now at the plate. He took a ball, then a strike, then a ball, and then hit a liner to left. Two men on, one out. Ichiro Suzuki, the prodigal, at the plate.
Every piece of this game led to this moment. The dwindling star, the unscratchable Ich, ready to shine - nay, to blaze forth into walk-off history. This was the perfect game to do so. The perfect game to prove that his mettle need not be tested. The day to prove that age, like batting average, like OBP, like WAR, was just a number.
But that was not the case. Ichiro, like many in this game, met his fate with a strikeout.
Then, with only two outs left, Dee Gordon hit a hotly contested single. He was deemed out at first base but the call was reversed and once again, there was a chance. Of course this was the real chance, this wasn’t the last inning, this wasn’t what occurred just three sentences ago. This here was the real bases-loaded-in-the-ninth-inning chance that we all were waiting for. The chance to end this game on a bang.
Until it wasn’t. Jean Segura grounded out to third base, reducing what would have been a thunderous bang into a hollow whimper.
And that was the ball game. No redemption. No win.
There are tough losses and there are devastating losses. This one was even worse. It reinforced feelings Mariners fans know all too well. It’s over. It’s done. Move forward, but please, not without first fixing the issues.
Losses are inevitable, but this one was not supposed to happen, on multiple occasions and for multiple reasons. Blame the relievers, blame the hitters, blame Ichiro, blame whomever you please, as long as it is deserved.
If anything is deserved, it’s an apology to James Paxton.