Lefty James Paxton delivered his third straight quality start Friday in a dominant performance against Minnesota, which again begs the question that so often tortured Mariners over the last three years:
Is Paxton now, and at last, poised to achieve his tantalizing potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter?
"I certainly hope so," manager Scott Servais said. "He has a ton of confidence. The game-planning with him, he’s able to execute. You see it. He’s just attacking the hitters. He’s trusting his stuff.
"And when you have that kind of stuff, it’s easy to trust. Hopefully, we can keep him in a good spot, and we see this going forward."
Paxton’s recent work notwithstanding, his performance this season has been his typical roller-coaster ride of disappointment, injuries and eye-popping dominance. As always, the Mariners can only wonder "what if" he puts it all together.
"I watched the career of Al Leiter," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "It’s not dissimilar. Al had blisters here and there and some other issues through his early career.
"Right about this time in his career, at age 27 or 28, he had a year in Toronto where he was really effective. He signed a free-agent deal with the Marlins and took off. He wound up pitching late into his 30s.
"There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between Leiter and Paxton."
Paxton turns 28 in November. Despite opening the season in the minors after a poor spring — and despite a bruised elbow and renewed problems with the nail on his middle finger — he has achieved career highs for big-league starts and innings.
"It’s been great being able to get a solid body of work," said Paxton, who was limited by injuries to just 13 starts in each of the two previous seasons.
"Especially after coming back; I had a couple of missed starts there after getting hit (Aug. 7 by a line drive) in the elbow. But I feel I’m back in a groove now. I feel good about where I’m at."
Paxton sets up for one more regular-season start: Sept. 28 at Houston, which offers a chance for payback after suffering a tough 2-1 loss to the Astros on Sept. 17 at Safeco Field. He had a perfect game that night through five innings.
"Man, he was dominant," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said afterward. "He just dominated early. He was upper 90s. Really good breaking ball. It started out in the zone, we would go below the zone. He was hard to hit."
Teammate Robinson Cano, asked whether he could hit Paxton’s curve, just smiled and shook his head.
"No chance," he said. "He’s got one of the nastiest breaking balls that I’ve ever seen. He’s a guy who can throw a sinker at 97 (mph). Then he goes with a cutter. I mean, it’s hard.
"He’s not a guy who just throws 98 to the plate and you can say, `OK, I’m going to sit on breaking balls.’"
Ironically, perhaps, Paxton sharpened his curve in recent starts out of necessity. His latest fingernail problems, which surfaced last month, didn’t allow him to throw his cut fastball.
"That made me work on (the curve)," Paxton said, "which is probably helping me now. It’s been a work in progress for the entire year. Just getting it (consistently) from that arm angle."
And now, the cutter is back in his arsenal. The healing compound applied to his fingernail appears to solved that troublesome issue.
"The finger is not an issue," Paxton said. "It feels really good. I can throw all of my pitches now without any pain. I threw a couple of cutters (on Friday). The curveball was just working so well that I didn’t need to throw a lot of cutters."
So with all signs pointing up, here’s something to think about: If the Mariners manage to qualify for a wild-card play-in game or the wild-card game itself, the pitcher currently lined up for that all-or-nothing game is Paxton.
CANO BREAKS OUT
When tough times hit, Robinson Cano’s go-to source for advice remains his father Jose, a former big-league pitcher. So it’s no surprise that Cano, mired in a 4-for-32 slide, placed a recent call back home.
The result, coincidence or not, was four hits in five at-bats Friday in a 10-1 victory at Minnesota. What’s particularly notable was a single to left and another single on a grounder up the middle.
"I haven’t used the whole field in a long time," Cano said, "but it’s good. Not because I got the four hits but because I was able to get the job done with men in scoring position and keep the rally going.
"I’ve been working. (On Friday), I was able to stay back and use the whole field."
Cano raised his average to .296 with nine games remaining. He is seeking to finish at .300 or better for the ninth time in his 12 seasons.
"It was great to see," Servais said. "He really stayed behind the ball. He wasn’t leaking or rushing so far forward. He stayed behind it and got the barrel out. He’s had a great year. He just had a little dip the last week or so.
"We need everybody going good here if we’re going to keep this thing rolling."
Shortstop Ketel Marte broke an 0-for-18 skid Friday with a single in the ninth inning, and the Mariners are hoping that gets him turned around.
"I’ve been talking to Edgar (Martinez)," Servais said. "We’re trying to find something to get Marte going again offensively. He had some nice games on the last road trip and had some big hits in Oakland, but he struggled on the homestand.
"He’s got no timing right now. His rhythm is really messed up at the plate. We’re trying to do some different things with him, bunting and hitting and running, and nothing seems to have gotten it going for him."
Marte’s struggles have already prompted Servais to shift to Shawn O’Malley when the Mariners face a left-handed starter. O’Malley is likely to start Sunday against Twins lefty Hector Santiago.
A point of emphasis with Marte is to calm down his swing.
"When you see the guys in this league who are very consistent," Servais said, "they don’t have all of those moving parts. It’s a very clean swing. The less movement, the better."
LOOKING BACK I
It was 25 years ago Sunday — Sept. 25, 1991 — that the Mariners topped two million in home attendance for the first time in franchise history when they drew 27,256 for a 7-1 loss to Texas at the Kingdome.
Nolan Ryan started for the Rangers.
The Mariners finished the 1991 season with an attendance of 2,147,905. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Mariners also finished 1991 with a winning record (83-79) for the first time in franchise history.
The 1991 attendance remained a franchise record until 1996, when the Mariners drew 2,723,850. The current record is 3,540,482 in 2002. This year, the Mariners have drawn 2,169,666 with four home dates remaining.
LOOKING BACK II
It was 30 years ago Sunday — Sept. 25, 1986 — that the Mariners received outfielder John Christensen from Boston to complete an Aug. 19 trade that sent outfielder Dave Henderson and shortstop Spike Owen to the Red Sox.
The Mariners also received shortstop Rey Quinones and pitchers Mike Brown and Mike Trujillo in the deal.
The Mariners and Twins conclude their three-game weekend series at 11:10 a.m. Pacific time Sunday at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker (6-11 with a 4.32 ERA) will face Minnesota left-hander Hector Santiago (12-9, 4.82). Santiago is 2-5 with a 6.20 ERA in nine starts since joining the Twins in an Aug. 1 trade with the Los Angeles Angels.
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, including KTTH (770 AM). Note: the game will not be broadcast on 710 ESPN.
After Sunday’s series finale, the Mariners depart to Houston for their final road series of the regular season. After three games against the Astros, the Mariners close their regular season next weekend with four home games against Oakland.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners