TORONTO – Memories of the difficult days that followed his selection at No. 37 overall by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2009 draft didn’t cross James Paxton’s mind in the moments after finishing off his no-hitter at Rogers Centre. The Seattle Mariners left-hander from Ladner, B.C., initially felt shock and then an overwhelming joy, as opposed to vindication, after becoming the second Canadian to throw a no-hitter in the big-leagues, joining Dick Fowler, who accomplished the feat on Sept. 9, 1945 for the Philadelphia A’s against the St. Louis Browns.
“I was like, ‘Holy smokes, I can’t believe this just happened,’” Paxton said afterwards.
Still, periodically, he still reflects on the convoluted chain of events triggered when he and the Blue Jays failed to come to an agreement on a signing bonus. Public comments by the club linking Scott Boras to him as an agent rather than an advisor helped lead to a messy split with the University of Kentucky amid questions on whether he had violated NCAA rules with his representation in negotiations.
A lawsuit followed, but the legal proceedings were set to drag on beyond his final season of college eligibility, prompting Paxton to leave school and pitch for the independent Grand Prairie AirHogs to showcase himself for the 2010 draft.
“Having to deal with these types of things will make him a better person, will help him deal with the things he’s going to face when he makes it to the major leagues,” Pete Incaviglia, who was then manager of the AirHogs, told The Canadian Press at the time.
“It’s not all roses. There are some hurdles you have to get over.”
The Mariners ended up selecting him in the fourth round, he soon signed and began his career, and enjoyed his greatest achievement in baseball to this point Tuesday night in his 99-pitch, three-walk, seven-strikeout no-hitter.
“You couldn’t write this stuff. Pretty amazing to have it happen against the Blue Jays at home in Canada,” said Paxton, adding later: “I do think about (the 2009 draft) from time to time. That was a weird way to get to the big leagues, not the normal path. Everything I went through made me tougher and taught me something, and I think I’m better for all the challenges I’ve faced to get here.”
Paxton’s career since signing for a bonus of $942,500 on March 4, 2011 has been marked by stops and starts, with injuries costing him chunks of time in 2014 (strained lat), 2015 (strained tendon in left middle finger), 2016 (left elbow contusion) and 2017 (forearm strain, strained pectoral muscle).
This season had been a bit of mixed bag for him, although in his previous outing he struck out 16 and walked just one over seven shutout innings versus Oakland.
Against the Blue Jays, he worked around a pair of walks in the third to escape unscathed and after a one-out walk to Justin Smoak in the fourth, retired every batter the rest of the way, winning over a crowd of 20,513 along the way.
“I could hear a few of them on me saying, ‘You’re going to give it up,’” Paxton recalled. “But I just kept on going and by the ninth inning, I could hear the cheers starting to happen when I got outs. People were starting to get excited.”
There was a time Blue Jays fans were excited about Paxton, who transitioned to a full-time starter during his junior year at Kentucky and shot up draft boards as a lefty touching 97 mph, striking out 115 batters with just 20 walks over 78.1 innings.
The Blue Jays chose him 37th overall as part of draft in which they began to break from their previous approach of sticking to baseball’s recommended slot bonuses. Paxton was also a departure for them as a Boras client, something they had stayed away from during that time.
Paxton was a supplemental round draft pick they received as compensation for A.J. Burnett’s departure to the New York Yankees as a free agent.
When the Blue Jays failed to sign him, they received the 38th overall pick in the 2010 draft as compensation, which they used to select right-hander Noah Syndergaard, four picks after they chose Aaron Sanchez with a compensatory pick for the departure of Marco Scutaro.
Paxton made his big-league debut in 2013 and made his first appearance in Toronto on Sept. 22, 2014, getting hammered for nine runs, eight earned, on seven hits and six walks in 2.2 innings.
“We’ve come quite a ways from that,” he said while basking in the glow of his no-hitter. “Pretty amazing. To have it happen in Canada, what are the odds of that happening? It’s pretty amazing to think of that happening in Canada. It’s just very special.”