The pair have struggled recently in the minor leagues, but their selection to the Futures Game gave them good reason to celebrate.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker have only been apart for a couple of weeks, two-thirds of the Mariners’ vaunted “Big Three” torn asunder by Hultzen’s promotion to Tacoma.
But the two pitchers were enjoying their reunion on Sunday at the Futures Game, the annual prospects showcase prior to Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium.
“I kind of missed him a little bit,” Walker said, grinning.
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“It’s good to see his face again,” Hultzen added.
Before his arrival, Hultzen texted Walker a song that neither of them would reveal, but which had “a special connection for Tai and me,” according to Hultzen.
The other member of the Big Three, James Paxton, played in this game last year, and his stories about the experience awakened a desire in Walker to earn a selection himself.
“I kind of made it a goal to make it this year,” he said. “I got the call, and I was really excited. The first thing I did was call my mom and let her know I made it.”
Walker’s mom, Nellie, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Walker was wearing cleats he designed himself with pink ribbons to support his mom’s fight against the disease. She was in attendance at Kauffman Stadium.
Walker, still a month shy of his 20th birthday, worked a scoreless seventh inning in the U.S.’s 17-5 romp over the World. He struck out the first hitter on 97 mph heat, and allowed just a single to Cleveland minor-leaguer Francisco Lindor.
“Before the game, before I got on the mound, I just took a deep breath and took it all in,” he said. “It was great, a great experience.”
Walker hopes that a recent rocky stretch with Class AA Jackson — the biggest test of his meteoric career — is now behind him. After breezing through the early part of the season in dominating fashion, Walker has given up 27 hits, 20 earned runs and issued 14 walks over 19-2/3 innings in his last five starts. That’s a 9.15 earned-run average. He has 18 strikeouts over that time.
“I think it’s more mental,” Walker said.” It’s just kind of got in my head a little bit. Players go through bumps like this. It’s how you come out of it. You’re either going to bounce back, or you’re going to give up and keep going through the slump. I learned a lot as a pitcher, and about myself. I’m really glad I got to go through that
“Physically, I feel fine. Everything feels the same. I just hit a bump, you know.”
Walker’s biggest takeaway is that his secondary pitches — namely, his curve and changeup — still need to be honed.
“I’ve been just a one-pitch pitcher,” he said. “I want to use my fastball a lot. I also have to show my secondary pitches. I have to show my curveball, and if I don’t, the hitters in Double A can hit the best fastball, no matter how hard it is. If I show I can throw it for strikes, it doesn’t have to be every time, but if I show it, that should help a lot.”
The other thing Walker now realizes is that he was getting ahead of himself, yearning too much for a promotion, like Hultzen, and dreaming about his path to the big leagues.
“Going to big-league camp and everything was a great experience, and I just wanted to get there so bad,” he said. “I was thinking way too far ahead instead of taking a step back and relaxing and going day by day. “Right now, where I’m at, is my big leagues. I’ve got to treat it like it is my big leagues.”
Jackson manager Jim Pankovits believes that Walker’s struggles will ultimately benefit him.
“I see a lot of positives, believe it or not,” Pankovits said. “He has had a little bit of an up-and-down season. I’ve really liked how lately he’s handled the adversity. He’s shown his competitive side. That’s something I hadn’t seen up until that point, and I think it’s great.”
Hultzen had his own bumps early in his Tacoma stint, but he believes he’s heading in the right direction as well. After three starts for the Rainiers, Hultzen has a 5.25 ERA with 12 walks and 15 strikeouts in 12 innings.
“That’s all I can ask for, to get better with each start,” he said. “Obviously, I still have a lot of work to do. But I’m just glad I’ve progressed each time.”
Hultzen worked the third inning on Sunday, giving up four hits (one to the infield) and a run while striking out one. He was bailed out by a sensational diving catch by center fielder Anthony Gose.
“That saved my butt,” he said. “If it had gone over his head, I might have been yanked right after that.
“The whole experience was awesome. So much fun. I felt like a big-leaguer today.”