James Paxton Quells Concerns, Returning to Form With 'Encouraging' Performance

Max Goodman

As Aaron Boone arrived at the mound at Tropicana Field on Sunday to take the ball from James Paxton, the Yankees' manager pounded his starting pitcher on the chest, speaking with him briefly.

Although Paxton squandered a three-run lead with back-to-back home runs to the final two hitters he faced, the left-hander took a monumental leap forward from his early season struggles. 

Paxton twirled 6 1/3 frames with 11 strikeouts and just four hits. He was so dominant that at one point, the southpaw had retired 11 Rays in a row.

"I just thought he was really sharp, really on the attack and just had that aggressive mindset that we saw from Pax most of last season and this is a huge stepping stone for him," Boone said. 

New York wound up falling to the Rays 4-3 on a walk-off base hit in the ninth inning, long after the left-hander had exited in a tie game. Before he was able to bask in the positives of his performances, Paxton acknowledged that he was "extremely" disappointed he was unable to finish his final frame unscathed.

"It's a tough one. It was going really well and the seventh inning rolled around," he said. "I made a few bad pitches and they made me pay which is too bad. But it was a good one for me to build off of moving forward."

With 77 pitches, entering his seventh inning of work, Boone elected to ride Paxton for a few more batters. Despite a leadoff double, after Paxton got cleanup hitter Hunter Renfroe to pop out, Boone said he was comfortable allowing the left-hander to finish the inning, so long as his pitch count wound up in the 85-to-90 range.

He quickly regretted his decision as the next two batters went yard. First baseman Mike Brosseau barreled up a fastball up in the zone for a two-run blast. Two pitches later, Paxton left a cutter out over the middle of the plate and second baseman Brandon Lowe crushed a solo shot to tie the game.

Nonetheless, Paxton said he'll leave the ballpark ruminating on positive takeaways. He found his rhythm by working quickly, attacked the zone and gaining confidence in all aspects of his arsenal on the mound. 

"Definitely something to learn there in the seventh. I just needed to execute my pitches there in the end," Paxton said. "I'll look at that going forward and try to build up my arm strength to get through that and go even further."

Considering how Paxton's previous two outings to start the season had transpired, the lanky lefty toeing the rubber in Tampa on Sunday was a completely different pitcher.

Of his 87 pitches thrown Sunday, Paxton relied heavily on his four-seam fastball, a pitch that he had said he was concerned about one week ago when his velocity was far slower than usual. Against Tampa Bay, he threw the heater 63 percent of the time, averaging 92.3 mph—last week against Boston, his four-season fastball averaged just 91.5 mph.

"Seeing their swings early I could see I had some good ride on the fastball today," Paxton explained. "Getting those foul balls, getting those swings and misses definitely gave me the confidence to keep on going back to it."

Of the 55 fastballs Paxton threw, the lefty got a swing and miss or a called strike one third of the time. Six of his 11 punch outs came via the fastball while his off-speed pitches were effectively utilized as well.

"We saw a little tick up in that velocity and his execution was excellent," Boone explained. "He mixed in the changeup as well but his fastball played really well, the curve and the cutter were there for him."

Eclipsing double-digit strikeouts against a talented Rays club—as ace Gerrit Cole had done just one day prior—was a sign Paxton is on his way to returning to the form Yankees fans watched a year ago. In 2019, Paxton was often times the Yankees' best starting pitcher, winning 11 starts in a row during on scorching hot stretch from August to September.

Considering New York has been in desperate need from length out of its starting staff—beyond Cole and Masahiro Tanaka's most recent outing—adding a healthy Paxton to the mix will be invaluable in keeping the Bombers' bullpen rested and ready for a pennant race.

"Thought James Paxton did a really good job of getting back on track," outfielder Brett Gardner said. "He looked really good early in the game and in the middle of the game ... very pleased with the way he threw the ball, I thought that was encouraging."

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As for what New York's skipper said to Paxton on the mound as he took him out of the game, Boone wanted to make sure his starter knew just how proud he was of his performance.

"This was a huge outing. He's obviously been grinding hard and had a couple tough starts to start the season," Boone said. "I know how that weighs on you. But as we've seen here in his Yankees career, anytime he's faced adversity, he's stared it down and answered the call. I thought today, against a really good team, to go out there and pitch as well as he did, I'm just proud of the effort he put forward."

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