Both Walker and the other candidate, Roenis Elias, likely will get three more starts this spring, and if manager Lloyd McClendon holds true to his word, the suspense will linger until the Mariners break camp.
SURPRISE, Ariz. — Seattle’s search for a fifth starter last spring often left Mariners fans crying about Wolf (Randy, that is) when they weren’t “Hector-ing” Noesi.
Those were just two of seemingly a dozen miscast characters that Seattle was forced to try to fill out a rotation left barren due in part to injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker.
In fact, the pitcher who won the job, Chris Young, wasn’t even on the roster on this date a year ago. He was signed four days before the season began.
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That it worked out doesn’t erase the angst the situation created at the time.
Spring ahead a year, and the battle for the fifth spot looms as yet another reason there is as much optimism for this Mariner team as any since the early part of the 2000s.
Four starting jobs have been set since the minute camp began — Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma, James Paxton and J.A Happ.
As for who will take the fifth? Instead of last year’s jumble of names it consists of just two: Roenis Elias, last year’s spring-training surprise, and Walker, the pitcher who remains as enticing of a prospect there is in the organization.
Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon has said throughout camp the battle will go down to the last minute. He’s also said it won’t be based solely on what happens in spring training but on other factors, as well. What those are, though, he hasn’t said.
If the decision were based solely on spring numbers, Walker would have the edge.
Each pitcher has had four spring appearances, the most recent for each coming in an 18-hour span Thursday night and Friday afternoon.
The 22-year-old Walker has yet to give up a run in 12 innings this spring after throwing four scoreless frames in a start Thursday night against Cleveland. He has a team-high 13 strikeouts against three walks and an opponent batting average of .100.
Elias, meanwhile, gave up five hits and two runs (one earned) in four-plus innings (two batters in the fifth) Friday in a 4-4 tie against Texas. He has allowed five earned runs in 112/3 innings.
Elias, who went 10-12 in 29 starts last year as a rookie before an elbow injury ended his season, said he’s not worried about the battle with Walker.
“The team knows what I did last year at the major-league level,’’ he said through an interpreter. “Taijuan is having a great spring and I’m happy for him because he’s doing really well. But at the end of the day we both want the same thing — we want to help the team win.’’
Each pitcher has options and can be sent to Class AAA Tacoma, which makes the decision a little less complicated.
Walker is mostly happy to be able to pitch anywhere this time of year. Last season, a right-shoulder injury kept him out until June.
“I wasn’t even playing catch last spring, so it feels really good,’’ he said.
On Thursday night against the Indians, he showed not only that he can throw but that he is continuing to learn to pitch.
With one out in the second inning, he gave up a single, hit a batter and allowed a walk. After a ball to the next batter, pitching coach Rick Waits jogged out to talk to Walker with a simple message — throw other pitches besides a fastball.
“The one thing we tried to impress upon on him (Thursday) night is, ‘You’ve got four quality pitches — use them all,’ ’’ McClendon said. “Don’t start getting into a pattern here, especially against real good fastball-hitting teams. They are going to take advantage of them.’’
Mixing in more of his pitches, Walker retired the next two batters to keep his scoreless-innings streak alive.
“Maybe a light went on for him a little bit,’’ McClendon said.