The top pitching prospect, battling for the final spot in the starting rotation, throws two scoreless innings and allows one hit with two strikeouts in Seattle’s spring opener.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Getting the start on the mound in the Cactus League opener isn’t quite the same as making the start in the major-league opener. But for Taijuan Walker, taking the ball in the Mariners’ first spring-training game felt important, particularly considering what he was doing at this time last season.
The young right-hander did not get to throw an inning in a spring-training game last spring because of an ailing shoulder and setbacks in his recovery. Any chance he had to make the starting rotation passed him by while he was rehabbing and recovering.
This season is different. He’s healthy and locked into a competition with Roenis Elias for the final spot in the Mariners’ rotation.
Mariners 4, Padres 3 (10 innings)
Notable: Patrick Kivlehan hammered a low, hard line drive to right field that short-hopped and skipped past Padres right fielder Rymer Liriano and reached the fence, allowing Tyler Marlette to score the winning run from first base. It was Kivlehan’s second hit of the game. D.J. Peterson belted a solo homer in the first inning.
Player of the game: Young catcher Michael Dowd made the most of his two plate appearances, notching RBI singles in each of them. Dowd’s infield hit gave the Mariners a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning. He later gave Seattle a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning with a crisp single up the middle.
Quotable: “I thought our guys showed a lot of fortitude. It was a little sloppy, but that was to be expected. Our young players played extremely well. I was proud of them.” — Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon.
On tap: The Mariners host the Padres again at 12:05 p.m. (Pacific time) Thursday at Peoria Stadium. Left-hander Roenis Elias will get the start for Seattle, and right-hander Andrew Cashner will start for San Diego. The game will be televised by ROOT Sports and broadcast on radio by ESPN 710.
So given a chance to start that first game — Wednesday’s annual charity matchup against San Diego at Peoria Stadium — Walker delivered a solid but brief outing, throwing two scoreless innings and allowing one hit with two strikeouts.
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“The first inning I was up (in the strike zone) just because I was amped up for the first game and facing their best hitters and potential starting lineup,” he said. “But for the most part, I calmed down, especially after D.J. (Peterson) hit that home run. I was, ‘OK, we got a run. Let’s go get them now.’ ”
Walker gave up a leadoff single to Cameron Maybin to start the game and then lost track of him on first base, allowing him to easily steal second without a throw. A ground-ball out moved Maybin to third. With only one out, Walker had to try to work his way through the Padres’ big offseason acquisitions — Matt Kemp and Justin Upton — without letting the run score.
He did so with relative ease. Walker struck out Kemp on a changeup that darted low and away, forcing a meek swing. He then got Upton to fly out to end the inning.
“They are two power guys, so I went right after them, especially with Kemp,” Walker said. “We went fastball inside, three or four times, and then I threw a changeup.”
Walker followed the first inning with an incident-free, 1-2-3 second inning, ending his day at 32 pitches (19 strikes).
“I thought he threw the ball extremely well,” McClendon said. “I thought his changeup was good. I thought his slider is coming along just fine. His command of the fastball was good. He did a nice job.”
The changeup, which Walker holds with a modified split-finger grip, has developed into a solid and useful pitch. He started to gain confidence in it late last season as way to offset his fastball to left-handed hitters. This year, he’s using it more.
“I’m throwing it to lefties and righties now,” Walker said. “I threw it to Kemp. Just to have it, and know that I can throw it at any time in any count, for a strike helps big-time. It helps to keep them off my fastball, too.”
It also was about that time last season when he scrapped throwing from the traditional full windup. He basically throws from the stretch at all times — similar to Detroit’s David Price and Texas’ Yu Darvish. After discussions with Jaime Navarro, the pitching coach for Class AAA Tacoma, and even Price, Walker tried throwing from the stretch with very minimal foot movement to start the delivery in a bullpen session
“I just felt like it kept everything simple — not very much movement,” he said. “From the stretch, I felt like was able to throw more strikes. I just put two and two together and made it seem like I was from the stretch — just a quick leg kick and just go.”
The simplified mechanics made him more consistent.
“It helps that I’m just going to the plate. I’m not trying to do a bunch of stuff,” he said. “You have some guys who can do it — like Felix (Hernandez), who has a turn and everything. But for me, it’s better to just keep it simple.”
Those changes and tweaks came together in a September call-up during which he went 1-1 with a 1.96 ERA in five appearances, including 20 strikeouts in 23 innings.
“It helped a lot,” he said. “Everything felt good, and everything clicked for me then. Just going into the offseason after a good September got me ready for spring.”