By Greg Johns/MLB.com
SEATTLE — About 12 hours after learning his grandfather died in nearby Vancouver, British Columbia, left-hander James Paxton won his Major League debut with an impressive six-inning outing Saturday as the Mariners topped the Rays, 6-2, at Safeco Field.
Paxton, 24, held the Rays to two runs — one earned — on four hits with one walk and three strikeouts before being lifted after throwing 95 pitches. The 6-foot-4 Canadian pitched five scoreless frames before Evan Longoria hit a two-run home run in the sixth.
Paxton said he got a text Saturday morning from his dad with news of the passing of his grandfather, Lawrie Paxton, who had dealt with heart problems in the past. About 35 family members still made the two-hour drive south to Safeco Field to see the youngster’s debut.
“That wasn’t easy,” Paxton said. “It’s a very close family and he was kind of the glue. So it was great my family could make it down here tonight and watch me pitch. I know he was up there watching also.”
Paxton pitched with impressive poise for a youngster making his first MLB start, let alone one dealing with the death of a grandfather who’d watched him pitch growing up.
“In baseball, you learn to compartmentalize,” Paxton said. “I was obviously thinking of him before the game. I pointed to him up in the sky and knew he was up there watching and helping me out. It was just really special to get this one tonight for him.”
Paxton is just the third Mariners pitcher to throw at least six innings while allowing one earned run or less in his MLB debut, joining Blake Beavan (2011) and Erik Hanson (’88).
Paxton kept the Rays off-balance with a fastball that clocked from 94-97 mph and an array of off-speed pitches. He was in the dirt a lot early with his curveball, but began working that effectively as well as the game progressed.
“He’s got such a power curveball that sometimes he has to sort of get the gauge for it,” said catcherMike Zunino. “I’d rather have him miss down with that because you can’t get hurt down there. He made an adjustment and was throwing it perfectly at the knees in the middle innings. He had a great start tonight.”
The Rays couldn’t get much going against the lanky lefty.
“He really wasn’t deceptive. Because he’s a long arm, he gives you a chance to see everything,” designated hitter Delmon Young said after an 0-for-4 night. “Without seeing him, without being familiar with him, he did what he was supposed to do. He got ahead in the count and then he kept working down in the zone, established a strike zone below the knees and he stayed down there the whole night.”
Paxton was a fourth-round Draft pick by the Mariners in 2010 after not signing with the Blue Jays following his first-round selection in ’09. He is the Mariners’ No. 6 rated prospect by MLB.com, but had an erratic season at Triple-A Tacoma, where he was 8-11 with a 4.45 ERA in 26 starts before his September promotion.
But Paxton’s first start in the Majors went about as well as could be imagined, despite the expected nerves.
“Early on I was a little amped up, but I felt I got in a groove and was able to narrow my focus,” Paxton said. “It was just another baseball game, just a nicer stadium.”
Justin Smoak ripped his 16th home run of the season with an opposite-field solo shot leading off the second inning and Kendrys Morales added a solo blast of his own in the third off Rays rookie Chris Archer, who had allowed just 11 homers in his first 18 starts of the season.
It was Smoak’s second home run in the past three games and Morales also continued emerging from a recent funk with a 3-for-4 night with two RBIs and now has 19 homers and a team-leading 74 RBIs.
Seattle won its second straight over Tampa Bay to improve to 65-77. The Rays are 77-64 on the season, but have won just three of their last 12 games as they struggle to hang on to the second Wild-Card berth in the American League playoff chase.
The Mariners manufactured a run in the first when Brad Miller reached on an error, moved to second on a bunt by Abraham Almonte, took third on a nubber in front of the plate by Kyle Seagerand scored on a two-out single by Morales.
Then after Smoak and Morales went deep, the Mariners returned to small ball again in the fifth. After a leadoff double by Nick Franklin, Miller moved him to third with a sacrifice and Almonte dropped a perfect bunt single down the third-base line to score Franklin for a 4-0 lead.
After Longoria got the Rays on the board, Michael Saunders and Franklin responded with RBI doubles in the bottom of the sixth to make it 6-2.
Franklin got kneed in the back of the head by Smoak as both pursued a bloop single into shallow right field in the top of the sixth. The rookie second baseman stayed down for a minute, but remained in the game after being checked out by trainers and finished 2-for-4 with a pair of doubles.
“I told the little guy, don’t stand on the tracks when the train is coming through,” Smoak said with a laugh. “He was down for the count. I was just going for the ball there. I didn’t think he’d even be there, with the righty up and they were shifted over. I should have caught the ball. But I’m just glad the little man is all right. Maybe it knocked some sense into him.”
Paxton originally began his professional career as a starter for the Grand Prairie AirHogs in 2010. He was 1-2 in four starts with a 4.08 ERA when the Mariners purchased his contract.