Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
July 02, 2017

If the M’s hope to muscle their way into the AL wild-card conversation, it would help if they knew which version of James Paxton they were getting.

The early-season version of Paxton trailed only Chris Sale for king-of-the-hill status among American League pitchers. In four of his first five starts this year, Paxton allowed zero runs. His line during that stretch? 32 1/3 innings pitched, 39 strikeouts, six walks and 21 hits allowed, an opponents’ line of .179/.218/.231, and a 1.39 ERA.

Then in his next start, something went wrong. Paxton did allow only one earned run over 5 1/3 innings pitched May 2 against the Angels. But he also walked five batters, a lapse in command that looked nothing like his earlier efforts. Turned out he’d suffered a forearm strain in his pitching arm, an injury that would send him to the disabled list for nearly four weeks.

Paxton’s first start back was a gem: 5 ⅓ shutout innings against the Rockies, with six strikeouts, no walks, and just three hits allowed. Then, suddenly, he stopped getting hitters out. In his next four starts (against the Twins, Jays, Rangers, and Tigers), Paxton got hammered for 18 runs and 29 hits (plus 11 walks) in just 18 innings.

So who’s the real deal here? The healthy Paxton who put up goose eggs nearly every time out? The resilient Paxton who returned from the DL and looked like he’d never missed a beat? The arsonist who suffered through a miserable first three weeks of June? The somewhere-in-between Paxton who then hurled seven quality innings on June 27 (albeit against the horrendous Phillies)? Or the maybe-back-to-dominant Paxton who limited the Angels to just a single run on two hits Sunday night, breezing through those 19 outs on an efficient 87 pitches.

When the range in play is either Cy Young contender or batting-practice tosser, there’s a hell of a lot at stake.

14. St. Louis Cardinals (39–41, plus-7, LT: 19)

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