But all that changed in the past six days as the lanky 29-year-old lefty rung up a career-best 16 strikeouts last week against the A's and then blew that performance away Tuesday by no-hitting the Blue Jays in his native Canada in a 5-0 victory for the Mariners.
:: James Paxton no-hitter ::
"To have it happen in Canada. What are the odds?" said Paxton, who was drafted by Toronto in 2009, but didn't sign until being selected by Seattle a year later. "It's pretty amazing. Just very special. And against the Blue Jays? You couldn't write this stuff."
Paxton became the fifth Mariners pitcher in history to throw a no-hitter, and the club also has one combined no-hitter. He's just the second Canadian to fire a no-no, joining Dick Fowler of the Philadelphia A's in 1945.
Early on, Paxton didn't have quite the overpowering fastball velocity that helped him ring up 16 strikeouts in his previous outing, but he got stronger as he went on and hit 99 mph on his final two pitches to get Josh Donaldson to ground out to Kyle Seager to end the game.
"I mean, Josh Donaldson, you know? The guy is pretty good," Paxton said. "So I was like, 'I better bring my best stuff right here. I'm just going to rear back and throw it as hard as I can.' Fastball is obviously my best pitch. They know, I know it. I'm just going to let it rip at the top of the zone and see what happens. He smoked that ball to third base and Seager made an amazing play. That was happening all night long."
Paxton had never before thrown a complete game, but the Ladner, British Columbia, native joined Randy Johnson (1990), Chris Bosio ('93), Felix Hernandez (perfect game in '12) and Hisashi Iwakuma ('15) as the only pitchers in Mariners history to throw a no-hitter. Seattle also had six pitchers combine for a no-hitter in 2012.
• Breaking down Mariners' six no-hitters
The A's Sean Manaea had the only other solo no-hitter this year, while four Dodgers combined for another no-no on Friday against the Padres.
Paxton walked three in the first four innings while fighting to command a 92- to 95-mph fastball and only struck out seven in the game. But he kept the Blue Jays off balance by going more to his curve and cutter in the later innings and then got stronger, reaching back to throw a 98-mph heater past Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to end the eighth after a couple of hard-hit outs.
Paxton then dug deep in the ninth, throwing his fastest two pitches of the night on his final two throws, a pair of 99-mph fastballs to Donaldson, who grounded out to Seager for the final out.
"After he got the first two outs [on hard-hit balls to the outfield] in the eighth, you could see it building and then he started letting it eat and just got after it," said Mariners manager Scott Servais. "They had probably their best hitter up there with two outs in the ninth, but he made pitches. It's one of those experiences you'll never forget."
Paxton has had outstanding moments in the past and went 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA last season, but he has dealt with injuries much of his career and was just 1-1 with a 4.19 ERA in seven starts coming into the game.
Everyone has known Paxton has the potential to be overpowering if he can put everything together, and that certainly happened in his 99-pitch gem against Toronto.
"That was incredible," said Seager. "It couldn't have happened to a better guy. You talk about a guy that just gets in here, puts his head down and is an unbelievably tireless worker and just does everything the right way. I couldn't be happier for him."
Seager made an excellent diving stop on a 109-mph shot down the line and got up quickly to throw out the speedy Kevin Pillar to prevent a hit to end the seventh, and center fielder Dee Gordon charged in to snare a line drive by Yangervis Solarte on a play with just a 64-percent catch probability, per Statcast™, in the first.
"Our guys were locked in," Servais said. "They knew what was happening. I felt on the bench the last two or three innings, anything that anybody could get close to and get their glove on, they were going to do anything they could to make the play. And they certainly made the plays tonight."
Gordon went 3-for-5 from his leadoff spot, and Mike Zunino laced a two-run homer as the Mariners improved to 20-14 and kept the pressure on the front-running Angels and Astros in the American League West.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Zunino used to be primarily a dead-pull hitter, but the Mariners' catcher has worked hard to go up the middle or to right-center more in the past year, and he showed that his opposite-field strength still plays by pushing a two-run line drive over the right-field wall in the fourth to give Seattle a 4-0 lead. After missing the first three weeks with a strained oblique, Zunino is still looking to raise his average. But he's up to five homers, and this one was a 349-foot line drive off a fastball on the outside corner from Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman that gave Paxton some early breathing room.
Paxton is the first AL pitcher to have a 16-strikeout game and a no-hitter in the same season since Nolan Ryan with the Rangers in 1991. Ryan did that in the same game against Toronto, while Paxton pulled it off in back-to-back outings.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Seager made the play of the game for Paxton with his diving stop of a 109-mph shot down the line by Pillar to end the seventh. The speedy Pillar acknowledged he thought that one might get past Seattle's third baseman.
"I was really hoping," Pillar said. "You never want to get no-hit. Personally, we're always trying to hit the ball hard to get hits. Just because the game might be out of reach doesn't mean we stop trying. I was going up there, trying to compete, get a good pitch to hit and he made a great play. There's always one or two of those plays in a no-hitter and unfortunately I was on the hitter's end of one. It's just how it goes sometimes."
HE SAID IT
"James Paxton has come a long way in the last year and a half, competing wisely and making adjustments. And then just putting that aside and going out and compete and let it all hang out. And our team feeds off that." -- Servais
"It's really special. We go back to Double-A and we've seen each other grow as players and as people. So to see him put all that hard work in and eventually be able to come up and throw a no-hitter in the big leagues is amazing. He deserves it. He's one of the hardest workers I've ever met in my life." -- Zunino
Veteran lefty Wade LeBlanc (0-0, 3.57 ERA) makes his second start in place of injured right-hander Erasmo Ramirez in Wednesday's 4:07 p.m. PT contest at Rogers Centre. Toronto counters with lefty Jaime Garcia (2-2, 6.60 ERA). LeBlanc allowed just three hits in four scoreless innings in his first game in the rotation in a 4-1 win over the A's on Thursday, and figures to build on that 70-pitch outing after transitioning from his long-relief role.