James Paxton took a circuitous path to the Minor Leagues, but now that he's there, he certainly appears comfortable.
The Mariners prospect struck out a career-high 12 batters over six innings and earned his first professional win Tuesday as the Class A Clinton LumberKings shut down the Cedar Rapids Kernels, 7-1.
Paxton (1-1) eclipsed his previous high of 10 strikeouts, set only 11 days earlier against Wisconsin.
"I felt real good about [the start]," he said. "It was a lot of fun out there. I kind of felt like I was in the zone. It felt really good."
The 22-year-old left-hander scuffled a bit and fell in an early hole before finding his groove. He allowed a one-out single in the second inning to Jeremy Cruz, who scored two batters later on Marcus Nideffer's triple to give the Kernels a 1-0 lead.
"I was still trying to find my curveball a little bit," Paxton said. "I left a couple fastballs up in the zone and guys got to it.
"The RBI hit [by Nideffer] was a good piece of hitting. That was my former catcher at [the University of Kentucky], so I thought he had a pretty good idea what was coming. It was low in the zone, but he put a good swing on it."
Jesus Campos' leadoff double in the third, however, was Cedar Rapids' last hit off the native of British Columbia. Of the final 12 outs he recorded, 10 were strikeouts.
"The catcher [Steven Baron] and I were on the same page," Paxton said. "I was mixing the curve and change and keeping those guys guessing. The curveball was working real well; they couldn't get to it. The fastball was working well too. I was putting it in right location where they couldn't get any good wood on it."
Selected in the fourth round of last year's Draft, Paxton lowered his ERA to 2.22 in five starts. He's fanned 38 while walking 17 over 28 1/3 innings and would rank second in the Midwest League in strikeouts per nine innings if he'd pitched enough to qualify.
He was originally selected by the Blue Jays in the first round of the 2009 Draft, but did not sign. After the NCAA ruled him ineligible to complete his senior season, he pitched in an independent league.
"It was just a personal decision," Paxton said of his choice not to sign with Toronto. "I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree and help Kentucky win some games. It didn't really work out for me that way, but that was the decision that I made."
Tyler Burgoon took over for Paxton in the seventh and struck out two in three perfect innings to earn his fifth save.
Baron homered and Stefen Romero delivered an RBI double as the LumberKings took a 2-1 lead into the ninth before blowing the game open with five runs on four hits and two walks.
Speaking about how he plans to continue his success this season, Paxton kept it simple.
"I just need to stay aggressive, trust my stuff and have fun playing baseball," he said. "Just do what I do."