The set-up Sunday looked for all the world like a pivot point for the Mariners season, and perhaps beyond. The Big Maple, unbeaten James Paxton, was on the mound, matched against a so-far-shaky J.A. Happ, the debut of a three-rookie outfield of athletes who can hit, and a chance to send 30-some charter buses full of Canadian fans — the rowdy majority of the 120,000 who filled Safeco Field over the weekend — back over the border to weep in their Molson’s.
Happ was stellar, Paxton had his first bad game of the season, and the offense was 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. The 4-0 loss (box) was not only lackluster, it shows these guys have yet to develop a sense of theater.
Sunday was a moment to whip the bad guys, swoop up a damsel in distress and ride off into the sunset at .500 with the 11th triumph in 14 games. Instead, the Mariners (31-33) lost for the sixth time in seven games to the Blue Jays in a startlingly flaccid manner.
In the four-game sweep in Toronto in May, the Mariners managed six runs. In the three games this weekend, the Mariners managed six runs.
“For whatever reason, the Blue Jays have pitched us as good as anyone all year,” said manager Scott Servais. “We haven’t been able to get a whole lot going against them. It’s tough.”
Happ, the ex-Mariner (naturally), struck out eight in six shutout innings, looking like the guy who was 20-4 wth a 3.18 ERA last year, instead of a guy wobbling back from a forearm strain.
He also looked like most every other guy who comes back to play the Mariners after being traded. As with Baja Seattle teammates 1B Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales this weeknd, they seem to savor the taunt.
“He looked like the old guy,” said Toronto manager John Gibbons. “It answered a lot of questions for me.”
The 34-year-old lefty and six relievers stifled what looked to be something special in the Mariners’ 64th game — a lineup whose first six batters were hitting above .270, and that’s without injured SS Jean Segura, the American League’s leading hitter. It was also the first game together for rookies Ben Gamel in left field, CF Guillermo Heredia in center and Mitch Haniger in right.
Haniger, 26, was back for the first time since pulling an oblique muscle April 25, when he was seventh in AL batting average at .338 and second in on-base percentage (.442). He joined Heredia, 26, and Gamel, 25, to make a case for calm in the Mariners’ ever-turbulent search for long-term talent in the outfield.
“I think it sets us up well.” Servais said. “I like how they play. Aggressive, not afraid of anything. They all do it a little bit differently, but they they play hard and are very athletic.”
Along with elder statesman Jarrod Dyson, 32, who rested Sunday, the Mariners finally have athletes who can field each outfield position well and interchangeably. Gamel had a double and two singles to boost his average to .327, making it harder for the Mariners to call him the fourth outfielder, especially after solving for Happ.
“He had his fastball on both sides of the plate, threw a lot of change-ups to the righties — fortunately, none to me — and had his slider working too,” Gamel said. “I’ve always hit lefties pretty well.”
But before any of them reached the plate, the game had turned. Paxton allowed four of the first five Blue Jays batters to reach base, two scoring on a homer by the second batter, Josh Donaldson.
I didn’t have it,” said Paxton, a British Columbia native. “It was more when I tried to add intensity. I didn’t have the rhythm I needed to make quality pitches.”
He allowed as to how he may have eased off the intense rehab routine that allowed him to pitch well in his first game back five days ago from a five-week layoff due to a forearm strain.
“I worked really hard to get back . . . that foot-on-the-gas-pedal mentality. I made that first start, and then feel like maybe I’m a little drained after working so hard.
“I was just trying to find that right firing point again.”
He never found it, giving up all the runs on four hits and three walks to take his first loss of the season after a 5-0 start.
“His command of the fastball on the edge wasn’t quite like it’s been,” Servais said. “He was getting behind in the count. Donaldson was on him all day. The league knows who he is. They get geared up for him.”
No pitcher wins without help. The Mariners had two runners on in three of the first four innings, but managed nothing.
For the 41,137 who showed Sunday after a sellout Saturday night, it was another deflation following elation, made a little more annoying by the grins on the insufferable Canadians.