The young right-hander made another strong case in his bid to win the fifth spot in the starting rotation, tossing three scoreless innings and making some highlight-reel defensive plays.
PEORIA, Ariz. – Everything looked pretty simple for Taijuan Walker on Monday at Peoria Stadium. Whether it was dominating Cleveland Indians hitters or making impossible catches with his bare hand, the young right-hander made another strong case in his bid to win the fifth spot in the Mariners’ starting rotation.
Walker tossed three scoreless innings, allowing just one hit — a single to Jason Kipnis to start the game. That runner later was erased by a double play, and Walker retired the next eight batters he faced, striking out four. He threw 33 pitches in the outing, including 25 strikes.
Even in a Cactus League game, that type of ratio is impressive. Walker had to throw more pitches in the bullpen because he was so efficient.
Mariners 4, Indians 3
Notable: With the score tied 3-3 at Peoria Stadium, Ketel Marte led off the bottom of the ninth inning with a triple to the right-center gap. And that was all D.J. Peterson needed to get Seattle the win. The Mariners’ hard-hitting prospect lined a ball to deep right field that was caught, but it allowed Marte to easily tag up and trot home with the winning run. Seattle got a brilliant start from Taijuan Walker, who allowed a leadoff hit and then retired the next eight batters, including four strikeouts. Lefty Tyler Olson continued to impress, striking out Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes and Michael Brantley in the fourth inning. Mike Zunino also homered in the win.
Player of the game: Brad Miller showed why he won the starting shortstop job last season and will be competing for it again this year. Miller slugged a pair of solo home runs — one off Indians starter Carlos Carrasco and another off left-hander Bruce Chen — in his only two at-bats.
Quotable: “If it’s in there, I want to get after it. Getting in the box, I want to be 100 percent committed and ready to go, because I learned that this is the big leagues and you might only get one (pitch). I’m not waiting around. I’m trying to get after the best pitch I see.” — Miller on his hitting approach this spring.
On tap: Felix Hernandez will make his first start of the spring Tuesday against the Colorado Rockies at Salt River Fields. The Mariners ace likely will throw two innings. Colorado will start right-hander Kyle Kendrick. First pitch is set for 1:05 p.m. The only live broadcast of the game will be on MLB.com.
“I felt good,” Walker said. “Everything felt good. I guess I could work on fastball command more. I threw it for strikes, but not where I wanted to.”
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Walker’s slider — a new pitch he’s working on — was much more effective.
“I threw three, and all three of them were swing and misses,” he said.
That pitch is key for Walker. He has the big fastball that everyone knows about. It’s his foundation pitch. There also is a much-improved changeup that has been effective with its nasty, sinking motion.
But he has struggled to throw his breaking pitches with consistency over his career. His curveball — which is a slower, traditional big-breaking bender — offers a nice variation to his repertoire.
The slider essentially is a variation of the cut fastball that he had thrown the past few seasons. It just breaks more, and with added depth. The effectiveness of the pitch Monday had Walker feeling optimistic. He had been struggling to find the right feel.
“I think I’ve been trying to place it in the corner,” he said. “Today I just grabbed it and trusted it. Threw it down the middle and let it work.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon was impressed with what he saw from Walker.
“He pounded the strike zone, he used his offspeed stuff very wisely, and he fielded his position,” McClendon said. “He did well.”
Walker did more than just field his position. He made a few highlight-reel plays. In the second inning, he buried a 1-2 fastball in on the hands of Lonnie Chisenhall, who hit a soft pop-up between the mound and shortstop. Walker retreated off the mound and looked over his shoulder like a wide receiver with both arms outstretched. But the ball didn’t end up in his glove. Nope. He grabbed it with his bare hand instead.
“He made that look way too easy,” shortstop Brad Miller said. “He’s so athletic. Going back, down the mound, away. And he was nasty today, too. That kid, is he 21 yet? How old is he? Geez.”
Walker is 21 and turns 22 on Aug. 13. It’s easy to forget that he is that young, because he’s been in the organization since age 18 and has progressed so quickly.
Walker laughed about the barehanded play. It was all second nature. It just kind of happened.
“I got stuck on that one,” he said. “I thought he hit it a lot harder. It just kind of floated. I was like, ‘OK, what do I do? What do I do?’ I guess it was just instincts, and I stuck my hand up.”
If that weren’t enough, Walker showed more grace against the next hitter, David Murphy. He bounced off the mound to field a soft grounder and fired to first to get the third out of the inning.
McClendon tried to hide any awe at Walker’s athleticism on those plays.
“He’s OK,” McClendon deadpanned. “I could still take him in a basketball game.”
Roenis Elias, who is in competition with Walker for that fifth spot in the rotation, will make his second appearance of the spring Tuesday against the Colorado Rockies in Scottsdale. Elias will piggyback off Felix Hernandez, who will be making his first start of the spring.
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