TIM BOOTH, AP Sports Writer
SEATTLE (AP) — James Paxton threw six strong innings allowing just one earned run in his major league debut, Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales hit solo homers and the Seattle Mariners continued Tampa Bay on their West Coast slide with a 6-2 win over the Rays on Saturday night.
Tampa Bay lost for the seventh time in nine games on its swing through Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles and saw its lead in the AL Wild Card race reduced to one game after both Cleveland and Baltimore won on Saturday. The Rays have spent 61 straight days in position for a postseason berth, but if they can’t avoid a sweep by the Mariners on Sunday, that run might finally end.
Paxton (1-0) became the latest Seattle prospect to make a successful debut, joining Taijuan Walker. Paxton shut out the Rays for five innings and his only mistake was giving up a two-run homer to Evan Longoria in the sixth.
Paxton became the third Seattle pitcher in club history to throw at least six innings and allow one earned run or less in his major league debut. He struck out three and walked one.
Tampa Bay had a chance to cut into the deficit in the seventh after reliever Tom Wilhelmsen started the inning with consecutive walks and a wild pitch to put runners at second and third with no outs. He got a shallow fly ball to right from Yunel Escobar for the first out and the runners had to hold. Desmond Jennings popped out to shortstop for the second out and Ben Zobrist flew out to deep right-center to end the threat.
The Rays entered the game hitting just .159 with runners in scoring position on their road trip and went 0-for-4 on Saturday.
Paxton was a big reason why the Rays offense continued to struggle. The left-hander was the 11th Mariners player to make his major league debut this season. He didn’t disappoint, with a fastball that hit 96 mph on the stadium radar gun. His first major league strikeout came in the third inning when he got Jennings swinging and Paxton retired 16 of the first 19 batters he faced.
Paxton was cruising until the sixth when he finally made a mistake. Ben Zobrist reached on a one-out error by Kyle Seager and Longoria quickly cut the deficit in half with a long homer to deep left-center, his 29th of the season. The 421-foot blast off the out-of-town scoreboard was just the third hit of the night for the Rays.
Smoak went opposite field for his 16th homer of the season in the second inning off Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer and Morales added his 19th homer in the third. It was Morales’ second homer in four games after going 34 games in July, August and early September with only one long ball. Seattle also squeezed home a run in the fifth inning on Abraham Almonte’s perfect bunt that scored Nick Franklin. Michael Saunders and Franklin both had RBI doubles in the sixth as Seattle extended its lead.
Archer (8-7) struggled against Seattle last month and was done after just four innings on Saturday. He allowed two earned runs and four hits, but manager Joe Maddon ended his night after 75 pitches.
Notes: Rays RHP Jesse Crain, currently on the 60-day DL with a shoulder strain, threw a 26-pitch bullpen session on Saturday. Maddon said the plan is for Crain to throw another bullpen on Tuesday back home and proceed from there.
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