Paxton serves notice in strong start

Mariners lefty allows just two runs in seven innings

Paxton serves notice in strong start

HOUSTON -- As much as Thursday's 3-2, 10-inning setback to the Astros left a bruise on the Mariners as they exited April, there was a large positive to be gained from a strong start by James Paxton as Seattle's rotation continues to rebound.

Paxton had been one of the missing links in the opening weeks for the 10-12 Mariners, but the 26-year-old lefty served notice with seven innings of two-run ball in his longest outing of the season. And while that effort went for naught when Houston rallied to win in extra innings on a night the offense sputtered again, Seattle's rotation figures to be its strong suit in the long haul ahead and Paxton's performance plays large in that effort.

"He threw the ball just like I thought he was going to throw it," said manager Lloyd McClendon. "He was very, very good. He really commanded the zone pretty darn good. His pitch count was down where he wanted it to be. It was just an outstanding outing for him."

The rotation has now combined for a 1.67 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings over the last nine games, a critical turnabout after ranking last in the American League in starter's ERA in the initial two weeks.

"Our starters have been very consistent the last seven or eight starts and that's very good," said McClendon. "We just need to get our offense going. We have to swing the bats better."

Paxton skated around trouble the first two innings, allowing just one run despite the first two batters reaching base each frame. The Astros were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position the first three innings, with Paxton stranding Jose Altuve in the third after a leadoff double as well.

From there, he got in a groove and retired nine straight before a walk and single leading off the sixth allowed Houston to tie the game when Evan Gattis drove in a run with a grounder to third. But Paxton dug in again, striking out Chris Carter with a nasty curve and getting Jason Castro to fly out.

Paxton wound up finishing seven frames on 103 pitches. So while he remains winless at 0-2 with a 5.74 ERA, this was a big improvement for the 6-foot-4 southpaw after he'd surrendered 21 hits and 16 runs (13 earned) over 13 2/3 innings in his previous three starts.

Paxton had caught himself drifting toward third base on some of his previous games, so he worked hard to stay more direct to home plate and the results were noticeable.

"I was just staying on line, being aggressive and going after them with the fastball," he said. "Everything was working pretty good for me today."

And for a Mariners team that has been built largely on pitching and defense in recent years, that's a good thing indeed as Paxton opened the season as the club's No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez and his role looms even larger now with Hisashi Iwakuma on the disabled list for several more weeks.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.