SEATTLE — James Paxton woke up Saturday morning to a text message from his father and the news that his grandfather, Lawrie, had unexpectedly passed away. Suddenly Paxton’s first major league start for the Seattle Mariners took on more personal meaning.
“That wasn’t easy. A very close family and he was kind of the glue,” Paxton said. “So it was great my family could make it down here tonight to watch me pitch and I know he was up there watching also.
“It was really special to get this one tonight for him.”
Paxton threw six strong innings allowing just one earned run in his major league debut, Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales hit solo homers and the Seattle Mariners continued Tampa Bay on their West Coast slide with a 6-2 win over the Rays on Saturday night.
Paxton (1-0) became the latest Seattle prospect to make a successful debut, joining Taijuan Walker. Paxton shut out the Rays for five innings and his only mistake was giving up a two-run homer to Evan Longoria in the sixth.
Paxton became the third Seattle pitcher in club history to throw at least six innings and allow one earned run or less in his major league debut. He struck out three and walked one.
Seattle manager Eric Wedge has been impressed with the demeanor and approach both Walker and Paxton have shown.
“These guys have obviously had a lot of publicity the past couple of years, along with a few other guys, and I think the upside to that is you learn how to handle it at the minor league level and you’re more prepared to defend yourself when you get up here and handle it appropriately,” Wedge said.
Tampa Bay lost for the seventh time in nine games on its swing through Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles and saw its lead in the AL Wild Card race reduced to one game after both Cleveland and Baltimore won on Saturday.
Tampa Bay had a chance to cut into the deficit in the seventh after reliever Tom Wilhelmsen started the inning with consecutive walks and a wild pitch to put runners at second and third with no outs. He got a shallow fly ball to right from Yunel Escobar for the first out and the runners had to hold. Desmond Jennings popped out to shortstop for the second out and Ben Zobrist flew out to deep right-center to end the threat.
The Rays entered the game hitting just .159 with runners in scoring position on their road trip and went 0-for-4 on Saturday.
“We’re just unable to get the hit when you need to,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “I know we gave up six runs, but sometimes you’ve got to score seven, you’ve got to score eight. We’re still unable to really put an offense together.”
Paxton was a big reason why the Rays offense continued to struggle. The left-hander was the 11th Mariners player to make his major league debut this season. He didn’t disappoint, with a fastball that hit 96 mph on the stadium radar gun. His first major league strikeout came in the third inning when he got Jennings swinging and Paxton retired 16 of the first 19 batters he faced.
Paxton was cruising until the sixth when he finally made a mistake. Zobrist reached on a one-out error by Kyle Seager and Longoria quickly cut the deficit in half with a long homer to deep left-center, his 29th of the season. The 421-foot blast off the out-of-town scoreboard was just the third hit of the night for the Rays. But Paxton finished off the inning without any more trouble.
“He went right back in there throwing in the strike zone and that’s what you need,” Seattle catcher Mike Zunino said. “Honestly, Longoria has done it to a lot of people also so it’s not like he gave it up to someone he didn’t have to worry about.”
Smoak went opposite field for his 16th homer of the season in the second inning off Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer (8-7) and Morales added his 19th homer in the third. It was Morales’ second homer in four games after going 34 games in July, August and early September with only one long ball. Seattle also squeezed home a run in the fifth inning on Abraham Almonte’s perfect bunt that scored Nick Franklin. Michael Saunders and Franklin both had RBI doubles in the sixth as Seattle extended its lead.
Notes: Rays RHP Jesse Crain, currently on the 60-day DL with a shoulder strain, threw a 26-pitch bullpen session on Saturday. Maddon said the plan is for Crain to throw another bullpen on Tuesday back home and proceed from there. ... Seattle prospect Danny Hultzen threw a 51-pitch simulated game on Saturday. He’s battled shoulder problems this season and will now go to instructional league before pitching in the Arizona Fall League.