Paxton K's 8 in spring debut: ‘I’m back’

March 22nd, 2021

The theme of the day: Big Maple is back, and in a big way.

made his much-anticipated Cactus League debut in Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Brewers and, pardon the cliché, was in midseason form. The impressive performance carried far more weight for the big left-hander, given that he’s coming off a season that was plagued by back surgery and flexor strain derailments, and he’d been skipped his first four turns through the Cactus League rotation due to work visa issues that forced him to build his workload on backfields.

Paxton struck out eight of his 16 batters while topping out at 97 mph. He surrendered just two hits -- one of which was impacted by the sun -- and one run, with two walks over 4 1/3 innings, coming just shy of a five-inning threshold that initially seemed lofty since Paxton hadn’t pitched against an opposing team since Aug. 20 of last year with the Yankees.

“This is what I've been working for,” Paxton said. “Last year was tough for me. I didn't have any of the velo, my body wasn't in the right place, but I went to work this offseason and I feel like I'm in a really good place now. And today, seeing those numbers up on the board just confirmed that I'm back to being myself.”

Paxton lobbied to stay out and try to reach 10 strikeouts, but Mariners manager Scott Servais wasn’t having it. While walking off the mound, he received a roaring ovation from the 2,242 on hand at American Family Fields of Phoenix, which carried some significance, given that it was a road game.

“That was awesome,” Paxton said. “It was great to see all the Mariners fans out there, and I'm just pumped to have fans back in the stands. It changes everything, and it's a lot more fun for us out there.”

Even for the typically tranquil Paxton, Sunday’s outing lifted a weight off his shoulders. Because he signed a one-year deal with the Mariners on Feb. 18, obtaining an international work visa became a prolonged process, particularly due to the pandemic.

But for a newcomer of sorts -- at least in the context of his surrounding cast compared to the team he left in 2018 -- Paxton feels right at home as he enters the final week of Spring Training. The only players that remain from the left-hander’s last tenure are Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager and Marco Gonzales, who lobbied Paxton during free agency to rejoin forces.

As he’s grown comfortable around the Peoria Sports Complex over the past month, Paxton could often be seen walking one-on-one with Gonzales, or one of the other young starters, such as Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield, who was the very return in the trade that sent Paxton to the Yankees in November 2018.

“Really young team, very talented team,” Paxton said. “It's obvious -- there's tons of talent around here on pitching and defense and hitting. I think it's going to be a really good team. We've got a chance to surprise some people this year. I think there's a lot of talent here that has had some seasoning. Last year, I think they finished the season really well, played really well at the end of the season there. I know they're all looking forward to taking that into this season, and I'm excited to be part of it.

In many ways, Paxton is a different pitcher than the one who left in that trade -- the one that essentially sparked Seattle’s multiyear rebuild. He’s gained postseason experience, has worked with other elite aces such as Gerrit Cole and CC Sabathia and peeked behind the curtain of another team, one with a rich history of success.

“You learn a lot when you go to another ballclub and how they do it and you know getting the exposure of being in New York around a lot of veteran players,” Servais said. “They're typically built out. You learn things. You learn how they go about it, maybe how they deliver messages to younger players and things like that. I think he's taken all that. He just is [a[ much more mature Pax, and it's great to have him back.”

Paxton’s goal is to pitch at least 170 innings this season, a threshold he’s never reached. Paxton will make one more spring start, likely next Saturday against the Giants, the same team he’ll make his first regular-season start against during the Mariners’ three-game homestand beginning on Opening Day.

“I know what he's going to mean to our ballclub this year,” Servais said. “We've got to keep them healthy, keep them going, making every turn. You're going to look up at the end of the year and he's going to have a big season. There's no question in my mind.”