WASHINGTON — Five days earlier, in his final tuneup before the regular season, James Paxton threw well in a five-inning simulated game.
Still, the lefthander was looking for more, especially in the velocity department.
“I’m still looking for the last few ticks, trying to get that really comfortable feeling out there with my rhythm and everything,” he said then. “I’m working toward it. I feel like I’m ready to go.”
He was not.
Instead, Paxton’s first start of 2020 was a borderline train wreck. He was knocked out in the second inning of an ugly 9-2 loss to the Nationals on Saturday night at Nationals Park.
His fastball down more than a tick, Paxton allowed three runs, five hits and a walk in one inning-plus. After a relatively smooth first, he did not retire a batter in the second, allowing four straight hits and a walk before Aaron Boone yanked him in favor of rookie Mike King.
“I didn’t feel great,” Paxton said, stressing several times that he felt fine physically and that there was nothing lingering in his back (he had lower back surgery on Feb. 5). “Didn’t really have the good fastball, didn’t have a breaking ball to put guys away with. Just not a good night for me.”
Of his velocity, he said: “I think it’ll come in time, but it’s definitely something I want to address and work on going forward.”
Brought on with the bases loaded and none out, King did well in allowing just one run and was lights-out in the third before appearing to tire. He allowed four runs and four hits in 3 1⁄3 innings.
King, a touted prospect and previously a candidate to start Sunday’s game, now won’t get that assignment, which very well could go to Chad Green.
The offense was mostly quiet, though Giancarlo Stanton hit another monstrous homer, with this one leaving the bat at 121.3 mph, according to Statcast, and traveling an estimated 483 feet. He had hit a 459-foot homer on Thursday.
Still, the concern this night overwhelmingly was Paxton, coming off a 2019 season in which he went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA, including 10-0 with a 2.51 ERA in his final 11 regular-season starts.
Paxton entered the night a heavy favorite after the Nationals announced earlier in the day that 2019 World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg had been scratched with a nerve issue in his right hand.
Righthander Erick Fedde replaced him and was decent enough — especially given that his club made four errors behind him (and five overall) — allowing two runs (one earned) and four hits in four innings.
The Nationals opened the second with four straight hits. Asdrubal Cabrera, Kurt Suzuki and Carter Kieboom singled before Victor Robles lined a hanging 2-and-2 off-speed pitch into the leftfield corner to make it 2-0. Paxton ended the hit streak by walking No. 9 hitter Michael A. Taylor to load the bases, and Aaron Boone brought in King.
“I thought in the first inning he was really good with his cutter and his curveball,” Boone said. “Then everything kind of started flattening out toward the end of the inning and really flattened out [the entire] second inning.”
King could not have done much better than he did. He got speedy leadoff man Trea Turner to ground into a 6-4-3 double play, which brought in Kieboom to make it 3-0, and got Adam Eaton to fly to center.
The Yankees got one back in the third. Gio Urshela led off with a grounder to short that Turner misplayed and then threw away. The double-error, which gave the Nationals four to that point, put Urshela on second. Brett Gardner’s long flyout to right moved Urshela to third and DJ LeMahieu, who hit .389 with runners in scoring position last year, knocked him in with a single to center to make it 3-1.
Stanton, green-lighted on a 3-and-0 pitch, led off the third by crushing a belt-high fastball to left-center to make it 3-2.
As the ball left the bat, an audible “Wow!” could be clearly heard in the empty ballpark from a player in the Yankees’ dugout.
But that ended the highlight portion of the night for the Yankees. Robles’ two-run homer off King in the fourth made it 5-2 and Cabrera and Taylor later added solo homers.