Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 10, 2018

A Pair Of Memorable Starts, For Very Different Reasons

A few minutes after seven o’clock Tuesday evening, 25-year-old right-hander Dylan Bundy took the mound at Orioles Park at Camden Yards. The Oklahoma native was making his eighth start of the year, going up against the visiting Kansas City Royals and hoping to end a six-game Orioles losing streak and give his team its first win in the month of May. Fifteen minutes later and three hundred thirty-five miles to the northwest, 29-year-old left-hander James Paxton walked up the steps of the visitors’ dugout at the Rogers Centre in Toronto to begin his evening’s work. It was the bottom of the first inning, with the Blue Jays coming to bat against Paxton’s Seattle Mariners. Like Bundy, Paxton was making his eighth start, and while he was wearing the gray uniform of the visiting team, the native of Ladner, British Columbia, was pitching in his home country.

Neither Bundy nor Paxton are familiar names to fans beyond those who faithfully follow the Orioles or Mariners. Bundy was highly touted out of amateur ball, and Baltimore made him the fourth overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. He made two late-season relief appearances just one year later, but the following season underwent Tommy John surgery, and didn’t return to the Orioles lineup until 2016. Paxton was drafted by Seattle in 2010, but didn’t make it to The Show until 2013, a year later than Bundy. While not facing an injury as significant as Bundy’s, he too has spent large blocks of time on the disabled list, averaging less than twenty starts a season over the last four years.

In the early going of this season, it looked like both pitchers might finally have hit their stride. While Bundy’s record through his first five outings was only 1-2, the mark was a reminder that wins and losses are not solely in the hands of the pitcher. In those games he gave up just five earned runs in 31 2/3 innings, posting a sparkling ERA of 1.42. For his part, after being roughed up by Cleveland in his first game, Paxton quickly improved, allowing two or fewer runs in five of his next six starts while reaching double digits in strikeouts in three of those contests.

But for Bundy the hope of spring had given way to doubt. In his two starts prior to Tuesday he was hit hard, failing to get out of the 5th inning against both the Rays and Angels. Fans in Baltimore have had little to cheer about so far this season. Surely they were hoping that their starter would reclaim his early season prowess Tuesday night. Instead what they saw was an abbreviated performance that turned doubt into outright despair.

Left fielder Jon Jay, the Royals’ leadoff hitter, singled on Bundy’s third pitch. Then Jorge Soler homered on his sixth offering, giving Kansas City a quick 2-0 lead. Mike Moustakas followed, working the count full in an at-bat that lasted seven pitches. The slugging third baseman put the last of the seven over the wall in right for his ninth home run of the year. Salvador Perez didn’t take nearly as long, lining Bundy’s second delivery out of the park for a third consecutive home run. By now Bundy was thoroughly rattled, and a visit by pitching coach Roger McDowell did little to calm him down. Walks to Lucas Duda and Whit Merrifield followed, the first on the minimum of four pitches. Then Alex Gordon sent a four-seam fastball that wasn’t all that fast at 89 miles per hour over the wall in right center, upping the tally to 7-0.

With that Bundy’s night was done after just twenty-eight pitches. He faced seven batters and failed to retire a single one. In addition to his two walks, five balls were put in play and four of them left the park. The disastrous effort raised his ERA by more than a run and a half, from 3.76 to 5.31.

Bundy’s short outing was almost done by the time Paxton went to work against the Blue Jays. He needed just eleven pitches to navigate the 1st inning, striking out Teosco Hernandez and Josh Donaldson before retiring Yangervis Solarte on a lineout to center. Paxton was even more efficient in the 2nd, bookending groundouts from Justin Smoak and Russell Martin around a popout by Kevin Pillar, striding back to the dugout after throwing just eight pitches. In the 3rd Paxton’s teammates gave him some run support, plating a pair. He lost his perfect game in the bottom of the frame with a couple of walks, but limited the damage to just the free passes. With one out in the 4th Paxton issued his third walk of the game, but quickly ended the inning by inducing a double play grounder from Pillar.

By the bottom of the 7th Seattle’s lead had grown to 5-0, and Paxton had retired nine men in a row beginning with Pillar in the 4th. With two outs in the inning, Pillar stepped in to face the Mariners’ hurler one more time. The count went to 2-2, then the center fielder slashed at a 98 mile per hour fastball and sent a rocket down the third base line. Kyle Seager dove to his right and speared the scorcher on a hop. He quickly unleashed a throw across the diamond to first baseman Ryon Healy, beating the speedy Pillar by half a step. It was the closest the Blue Jays came to a hit all night. Two innings later, when Seager threw out Josh Donaldson on a far more routine ground ball, James Paxton had thrown the third no-hitter of the season. He did so in ninety-nine pitches, while walking just the three Blue Jays and fanning seven. In the process Paxton became the first Canadian to throw a no-hitter in his home country since the major leagues expanded north of the border more than four decades ago.

Game score is a metric developed by Bill James and later refined by Tom Tango, used to measure the effectiveness of a starting pitcher. Under Tango’s formula a starter takes the mound with a score of 40, then gains or loses points by his performance. Each out adds two points, with a strikeout worth an extra point for a total of three. A walk or hit subtracts two points, each run subtracts three, and a home run debits the pitcher’s score an additional six points.  On Tuesday Bundy’s Game Score using Tango’s method was -19 while Paxton’s was 95. Not surprisingly, the former is the worst number recorded this year. To appreciate the latter number, consider the fact that only fourteen pitchers have ever achieved a Game Score of 100 or higher in a nine-inning contest.

There are those who look at the slow unfolding of the longest season and argue that the Great Game’s schedule should be reduced, that the contests eventually all blend together. The reality is that no two games are alike, and the range of what one might see at a ballpark on any day runs the full gamut from hopeless to heroic.  Tuesday night, Dylan Bundy and James Paxton, one a pitcher who could not retire a batter and the other a pitcher who could scarcely do anything but, reminded fans everywhere of that enduring truth.

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