Starting pitcher Taijuan Walker struck out 11, leading the Mariners to a win over Houston on Monday in the first game of their homestand.
His masterpiece done, his dominance complete, Taijuan Walker pounded his glove, shouted, let his emotions pulse through him. He had struck out the final six hitters he faced, a pitcher in total control of his craft, and he knew it.
It was the final touch on what was arguably his finest night as a professional baseball player.
Not only did Walker pitch the Mariners to a 3-2 win Monday against the Astros, he also pitched them into sole possession of first place in the American League West. It’s the latest the Mariners have been in first since 2009.
Astros @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
The Mariners (10-9) have won eight of their last 11 games, and their 10th win of the season was largely a result of the right arm of Walker.
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“That was about as dominant as I’ve seen him or really anybody,” Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager said. “That was pretty special for me. Just the way the ball was coming out of his hand, all the pitches. He was dominant. He was throwing everything with conviction. He was just absolutely a bulldog. He pretty much willed us to victory there. We had four hits, and he took it into his own hands.”
The talent has always been there for Walker. Physically, he looks the part. The quality of his pitches is obvious. And in his very brief career, he has shown flashes of being a star-in-waiting.
Walker, just 23 years old, has used the start of this season to solidify the heavy expectations he has carried for years.
“I think we’re watching somebody take the next step,” manager Scott Servais said.
Walker has pitched at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer in each of his four starts. His ERA is 1.44, and he has 25 strikeouts against just three walks.
“He’s finding his stride, coming into his own, and it’s some kind of fun to watch,” Servais added.
Walker tied a career high with 11 strikeouts. He gave up just one run in seven innings. He looked even better as the game wore on, which is why Servais turned him loose for the seventh inning despite Walker having thrown 102 pitches — another small sign of maturity.
“I was just fired up, especially those last two innings,” Walker said. “I felt strong, even towards the end.”
The Mariners didn’t give him much in the way of support. They had just four hits, although two of them were solo home runs: one from Seager and one from Leonys Martin. It was Seager’s 100th career home run.
But Walker didn’t need much help from the offense. He did, however, need some from the bullpen.
With setup reliever Joaquin Benoit on the 15-day disabled list, Servais turned to veteran Joel Peralta for the eighth inning. Peralta allowed a run but stranded the tying run on second.
And then it was closer Steve Cishek’s turn in search of his 100th career save. Cishek put two runners on, but got Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to ground out to secure Walker the win.
“I was just happy we were able to pull it out for him,” Cishek said. “He deserved that win. He gave us every chance we could have to win that ballgame.”