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James Paxton struggles as Yankees fall to Rockies

Yankees pitcher James Paxton reacts in the dugout

Yankees pitcher James Paxton reacts in the dugout after being relieved during the fourth inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Photo Credit: Brad Penner/Brad Penner

There’s no way to look at the Yankees’ 10-game homestand as anything but a success, even though it concluded with Sunday’s 8-4 loss to the Rockies. The Yankees won seven of 10, rediscovered their offense with 42 runs in the last six games and got to sample the rare air of having the best record in baseball.

And yet in his 3 1/3 innings Sunday, James Paxton managed to put the Yankees back in the place where the homestand started:  looking as if they need a pitcher to make the starting rotation more dependable.

Paxton had seemed to be shaking off a burgeoning rep as the rotation’s biggest enigma with three solid starts in a row – allowing five runs in 18 innings – but he was hit hard by the Rockies.

The Rockies in Sunday's starting lineup had gone 4-for-43 (all singles) with 20 strikeouts against Paxton in the past, but Charlie Blackmon (four hits) slammed his second pitch of the game into the Yankees' bullpen in right-centerfield to begin the onslaught against the lefthander.

Paxton has allowed 19 earned runs in 17 first innings this season for a 10.06 ERA. In all other innings, he has a 2.75 ERA. Eight of the 13 home runs he has allowed have come in the first inning.

DJ LeMahieu lined German Marquez's first pitch of the game over the rightfield wall to tie it at 1-1, but Paxton continued to struggle. He was charged with seven runs (four earned) and allowed five hits and three walks. His six strikeouts speak to the unevenness of his performance.

“I didn’t have a feel for where the fastball was going. . . . I didn’t locate very well,” Paxton said. “I was falling behind in counts and having to come to them. I can’t walk that many guys and [give] up hits when I’m behind in the count.”

General manager Brian Cashman’s stated quest to upgrade the pitching staff was front-and-center for the Yankees coming out of the All-Star break, but the rotation — Paxton included — had seemed to be making a case that it’s just fine. Before Sunday, in the first nine games of the second half, the starting rotation was 5-1 with a 3.42 ERA that ranked third best in the American League in that stretch.

Paxton, acquired from Seattle in the offseason for the front of the rotation, has shown himself to be capable of dominating. He also has not gotten through five innings seven times.

“I’ve had some good starts and some bad starts, good stretches, bad stretches,” he said. “I’ve been having trouble finding the consistency this year, going out and having multiple good starts in a row. I was on a roll with the last three in the past; it was a little blip today.”

Regardless of whether the Yankees make a deal for a pitcher, Paxton is envisioned as someone who will start postseason games and turn in dominating performances.

“Overall, I think he’s throwing the ball really well and I view him as a guy we are going to lean on heavily down the stretch and hopefully in October,” manager Aaron Boone said.

Before the game, Boone said, “I feel like our rotation has been underappreciated all year. Obviously, people talk about our offense and the great players, contributors we’ve had in our lineup this year, and they talk about our bullpen a lot – rightfully so — but the starters have put us in this position. They have by and large given us a chance to win games every single day.”

That wasn’t so much the case with Paxton as the Rockies began their second turn through the lineup.

No. 8 hitter Chris Iannetta entered the game 0-for-13 against Paxton but drew three leadoff walks in the game, two against Paxton, and scored three times. After Iannetta walked to begin the third, first baseman Luke Voit misplayed Tony Wolters’ sacrifice bunt for an error and Blackmon ripped a single to left to load the bases. Paxton struck out Trevor Story, but on a 3-and-2 pitch, Nolan Arenado lined a fastball into the leftfield corner for a two-run double. David Dahl’s two-out, two-run single to center put Colorado up 5-1.

Boone described Paxton’s pitch to Arenado as “probably giving in a little bit there.”

Though Chad Green had warmed up late in Paxton’s 33-pitch third inning, the lefthander was back on the mound to start the fourth. He walked Iannetta to start it and allowed a one-out single by Blackmon before Boone made the move for Green. But Story hit Green’s third pitch over Aaron Hicks' head and it bounced into Monument Park for a two-run double that made Colorado’s lead 7-1.

Mike Tauchman  homered in the fifth to cut the margin to 7-2 and  Hicks hit a two-run home run into the second deck in rightfield in the eighth to make it 8-4, giving the Yankees their fourth and final hit. In between, the Yankees allowed their fourth unearned run of the game on Gary Sanchez's two-out passed ball in the eighth.

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