MESA, Arizona: The optimism in manager Scott Servais’ voice was apparent when he discussed the upcoming afternoon start for left-hander James Paxton and the competition with Nathan Karns for the fifth spot in the rotation.
As a manager who preaches the concept of competing, this was the essence of it.
“It’s a big outing for [Paxton] today,” Servais said in his morning session with the media. “We are starting to get to that point when you start locking in. Guys have had a couple starts under their belt and start mixing in all of their pitches and get through the lineup two or three times.”
Seven hours later, following a crazy 11-11 tie with the Oakland A’s, Servais’ voice had lost some of the optimism after watching Paxton struggle through two innings and fail to get an out in the third. Paxton was pulled after four consecutive batters reached base.
He was charged with seven runs. He allowed six hits, three walks, hit a batter and struck out none.
“Pax obviously was not his sharpest,” Servais said. “I’m a little disappointed. I was looking for a little bit more from him today.”
Paxton gave up two runs in the first inning on a deep, two-run homer to center field. Oakland added three in the second. With two outs, Paxton walked Yonder Alonso and hit Marcus Semien with a pitch. Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie followed with back-to-back doubles to drive in the runs.
Paxton started the third inning with a walk, a single, a walk and an RBI single to end his day.
With the Mariners trying to decide between Paxton and Karns for that final spot, Servais hoped both pitchers would use their next two starts to push for that spot.
Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto would like to determine the winner of that competition before the final week of spring training, which would allow the rotation to proceed on a normal routine in preparation for the season. Servais wouldn’t elaborate Thursday morning if one had an edge.
“I think they’re right there with each other,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been huge separation yet. We may see that here, the next outing or two.”
Paxton’s outing Thursday wasn’t ideal given the circumstances.
“I just kind of lost the handle a little bit,” he said. “I didn’t have the best stuff with my off-speed stuff. I think I probably went to that too much, and I could have gone more heavy with the fastball because I was feeling good with it.
“When I lost the handle of my breaking stuff, I kind of lost it on my fastball. I should have known that early, figured that out and gone mostly fastball-changeup, because that’s what was feeling good. I think throwing the other stuff and having it not feel as good kind of took me off the pitches that were working. I need to do a better job of recognizing that, and I will.”
In the first two innings, Paxton got two quick outs, only to allow a base runner and struggled throwing from the stretch.
“I think I may have been going a little too fast,” he said. “I was trying to get too quick to the plate instead of staying on my back side longer and getting through the ball a little bit. It could have been part of it. But I think most of it was just kind of mental.”
How do you fix the mental issue?
“It’s really a thing where you have to take a step off the mound and disconnect yourself and look at yourself from the outside and say, ‘What am I doing wrong here? What do I need to do?’ ” he said. “And then go out there and battle and fix it. I didn’t do a very good job of it today. But I will get better at it.”
One thing that must get better are his breaking pitches. His curveball — a major pitch in his repertoire — has been mediocre and unpredictable much of the spring.
“I feel like I’m still finding the breaking ball right now,” he said. “It’s just not there yet. I’ve thrown a couple of good ones here and there, but the consistency isn’t there yet. That’s definitely something I’m still kind of searching for. But that’s why we have spring training.”
Perhaps, but spring training isn’t forever.
Paxton needs to have a much better showing in his next outing.
Meanwhile Karns could help himself Friday at Peoria Stadium against another division opponent — the Texas Rangers. Having Paxton and Karns face two American League foes wasn’t designed, but it also wasn’t avoided.
“Karns and Paxton are in a competition,” Servais said. “I’d rather see those guys competing in ‘A’ games than ‘B’ games.”
Servais has downplayed spring stats as determining factors, but he wants to observe how the two starters compete, set up hitters and execute pitches. Spring numbers might not matter, but how those numbers are reached does.
“It’s the competitive nature; you aren’t just out there working on stuff now,” Servais said. “It’s get hitters out. It’s a do-good league.”