When James Paxton gets in a groove, he really gets in a groove.
The Seattle Mariners left-hander, named the American League Pitcher of the Month last July when he set a franchise record by winning six games, started this month with seven scoreless innings against Oakland in which he struck out a career-high 16.
He followed that with a no-hitter May 8 at Toronto.
After getting a no-decision in a six-inning start in Detroit, Paxton returned home Saturday and pitched a three-hitter in a 7-2 victory over the Tigers.
“It was really cool that I could go out there and get the nine innings with everyone here supporting me,” he said after his last start.
Paxton (3-1, 3.30 ERA) hopes to stay in that groove when he faces the Minnesota Twins on Friday night at Safeco Field. The Twins are scheduled to start rookie right-hander Fernando Romero (2-0, 1.66), who will be facing the Mariners for the first time.
“We jumped on his back,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said of Paxton’s last start. “It’s been fun watching it kind of evolve over the last 4-5 outings and taking a next step — establishing himself as one of the best starters in this league. There’s no question about it.”
Mariners catcher Mike Zunino agreed.
“He got better throughout the game and I think it just shows what he’s becoming as a pitcher,” Zunino said. “He’s developed over the past couple of years and he’s that guy you want to have that ball every fifth day taking you deep into ballgames. Whether he has his best stuff or not, he’s going to pitch deep into the game.”
Paxton is 2-1 with a 2.91 ERA in four career starts against the Twins, including his infamous April 5 start in which an eagle that was part of the pregame festivities mistook Paxton for his handler and tried to land on his shoulder in the outfield.
Paxton allowed two runs and four hits in five innings that day with one walk and seven strikeouts but didn’t get a decision in a 4-2 Minnesota victory.
Even Paxton was a little surprised his last time out when Servais allowed him to go out to the mound in the ninth inning to finish his second career complete game.
“I just stayed focused,” said Paxton, who threw 117 pitches. “I was ready to go. I wasn’t going to change anything unless they came up to me and wanted me to be done. I was excited to go out and pitch it.”
Servais understood the moment and trusted his best pitcher beyond a pitch-count number.
“You are looking at the stuff and how he’s handling it and how the hitters are reacting to it,” Servais said. “And there’s also times when the pitcher on the mound feels it and he’s sniffing the finish line and you want to give him every opportunity to get there. I was excited to do that.
“When I shook his hand after the game, he said, ‘You let me go,’ and I said, ‘You earned it,’ ” Servais said. “He really did. In the seventh, you could see he had the feeling he could finish it, so why not? Let him go.”
Romero, who made his major-league debut May 2, didn’t allow a run in either of his first two starts, winning both. He gave up one run in his third start and had his worst outing Saturday against Milwaukee when he allowed four runs (three earned) and three hits in five innings.
“Romero has given us a boost,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said matter-of-factly, perhaps trying to temper expectations for the team’s top pitching prospect.
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