IS THIS PAXTON’S BREAKTHROUGH? ONLY TIME WILL TELL

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — It’s no small temptation to look at James Paxton’s last two starts and declare the big lefty has, finally, validated his long-touted potential as a staff ace.

   How about you? Is that how you see it?

   Paxton pitched a no-hitter Monday in a 5-0 victory at Toronto after registering 16 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings in his previous start on May 2 against Oakland at Safeco Field.

   Some perspective on how rare that is: The last American League pitcher to throw a no-hitter and have a 16-strikeout game in the same season was the one and only Nolan Ryan, at age 44, in 1991.

   Ryan did it in the same game: May 1 against Toronto at Texas. (If anything, it strikes me that Paxton’s double is more impressive because he flashed such complete domination in two separate games.)

   As Paxton approaches his next start, Sunday at Detroit, and, with a few days of separation for perspective…I’m not completely sold on coronation narrative. I want to be. Paxton is an easy guy to root for. But I’m not sold. Not yet.

   Paxton has been dominant before for extended stretches. Not 16-strikeouts or no-hitter dominant, but he began last season by going 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA in his first six starts while piling up 51 strikeouts in 43 innings.

   (Self-disclosure: I was convinced then that long-time ace Felix Hernandez had passed the torch to Paxton as the rotation’s undisputed leader. So maybe that’s why I’m more cautious this time around.)

   Because what happened next? Paxton gave up 20 earned runs over 25 innings in his next five starts. 

   Paxton closed the 2016 season by going 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA in nine starts. A year earlier, he was 3-2 with a 2.68 ERA in one stretch over eight starts.  

   We’ve seen this before.

   Paxton enters Sunday’s game at Comerica Park at 2-1 with a 3.40 ERA this season in eight starts. Even throw out his March 31 start against Cleveland as a mulligan, and his numbers are 2-0 with a 2.51 ERA in seven starts.

   Good. But not as good as last year at the start.

   With many pitchers who flash strong stretches, particularly hard throwers, the problem is one of inconsistency. On nights when they can command an off-speed pitch, they resemble a Cy Young winner. (Remember Taijuan Walker?)

   But the issue with Paxton, as any Mariners fan knows, has never been one of consistency but rather his inability to stay healthy. Now in his sixth big-league season, he has never made more than 24 starts or pitched more than 136 innings.

   I must admit that as I watched the Mariners piling on Paxton after the final out Monday in Toronto, I was thinking: Careful, this is the guy who once injured both arms when he fell during a routine agility drill in spring training.

   Paxton’s injuries have always tended to be off-beat. Not just torn fingernails and blisters, but…well, he missed four weeks last year when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle on a pitch.

   How does that happen?

   Note, too, that Paxton had won his seven previous starts while compiling a 1.59 ERA. That torn pec was the tipping point in the Mariners’ quest to overcome a flood a injuries, particularly to their rotation, and bull their way into postseason.

   The Mariners were 59-56 prior to Paxton’s injury and held the American League’s final wild-card berth. They finished 78-84 and seven games back in the wild-card chase. The postseason drought now stands at 16 years.

   Various injuries forced Paxton to the disabled list in each of the four previous years for a combined absence of roughly 44 weeks — an astonishing average of 11 weeks per season.

   To be fair, Paxton realizes his potato-chip reputation, hates it with a passion, and has worked diligently in recent years on his conditioning through yoga and other programs. He’s in far better shape now than he was just a few years ago.

   Maybe we’re seeing the result of that work.

   *****

   An aside: Those of us on the Mariners’ beat in recent years spent, it seemed, an inordinate amount of time talking to Paxton as he worked his way thorough one rehab program after another.

   How’d he feel after a 20-pitch bullpen workout? Was it encouraging to face hitters again in live batting practice? Etc. Paxton was unfailingly polite, and I never heard him whine about bad luck surrounding his injuries.

   So when I saw him holding up his right arm to display his maple leaf tattoo to friends and fans after Monday’s game, I thought, “Here’s one moment to weigh against all of those crushing disappointments.”

   ***** 

   It’s quite possible that, at some point in the future, we’ll look back at Paxton’s last two starts and identify them as the moment when he made the leap from marvelous potential to being one of the game’s top pitchers.

   But we can’t say that yet. We won’t be able to say it Sunday no matter what happens in Detroit. Even if Paxton stays healthy and delivers a breakout season that includes 30 or more starts, that’s only a step. A big step but only a step.

   The question then shifts: Can he do it again? And then again and again?

   What we know now is what we’ve always known: James Paxton could — could! — be that special. He has the tools to be a staff ace and one of the best pitchers in the game.

   We’ve seen that potential before, and we’re seeing it again. Now we need to see the rest.