Walker allowed three hits and no earned runs in six innings, striking out six and walking none.
CLEVELAND — On a night when there was little margin for mistakes — no misplaced pitches left up in the zone, no free base runners on senseless walks, no wasted two-strike counts — Taijuan Walker and the Mariners’ bullpen delivered a near-flawless performance.
Walker and relievers Joel Peralta, Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek made the Mariners’ minimal offensive output hold up with a brilliant overall pitching performance in a 2-1 win over the Cleveland Indians on Wednesday night at Progressive Field. With the win, the Mariners improved to 6-8 for the season and avoided a third consecutive loss.
Walker pitched six innings, allowing one unearned run on three hits with no walks, a hit batter and six strikeouts to pick up his first win. The 22-year-old right-hander outdueled Indians starter Danny Salazar, who was equally impressive, throwing seven innings, giving up two runs on three hits with three walks and seven strikeouts.
Mariners @ Cleveland, 9:10 a.m., ROOT Sports
“Outstanding pitching from both sides,” manager Scott Servais said. “We certainly had our hands full with Salazar. Tip my hat to Taijuan Walker. What a great outing. He really stepped up in a game where we had no room for error.”
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Indeed, Walker knew he was locked in a pitching battle with Salazar. But he had the advantage of getting an early lead thanks to one big hit from Norichika Aoki in the top of the second.
With runners on first and second and two outs, Aoki yanked a 1-2 fastball for a hard ground ball just inside the first-base bag. The ball rolled into the corner, allowing Adam Lind to score from second and Chris Iannetta to score all the way from first. Aoki rolled into third with his second triple of the road trip.
“I’m very happy to get that clutch hit in that situation,” Aoki said through interpreter Antony Suzuki.
The Mariners have been lacking in that clutch-hitting aspect early in the season, coming into the game with a .191 batting average with runners in scoring position, including an 0-for-10 showing Tuesday night.
“We needed one,” Servais said of Aoki’s triple. “We got one. It was huge. We were due for one — a big two-out hit. We didn’t have many opportunities. Salazar is really tough when he gets that split going and with the fastball with the life it’s got.”
Indeed, Aoki’s hit was the Mariners’ last hit of the game. The only base runners they had in the final seven innings of the game came on a pair of walks in the sixth inning.
Walker made those two runs stand up. The only run Cleveland would score came in the third inning. With one out and a runner on first, Lind misplayed a ground ball at first. It eventually led to a run on Jason Kipnis’ sacrifice fly. Walker allowed only two more base runners over the next three innings.
“I felt good today going in,” Walker said. “I had my good velocity early and kind of just had it throughout the whole game. That was probably the biggest thing, just starting off aggressive early and just going right after them.”
At 91 pitches after five innings, Servais didn’t hesitate to bring Walker back for the sixth. He allowed a one-out single, but came back to strike out Mike Napoli and get Carlos Santana to ground out.
“He looked very strong,” Servais said. “The velocity was still there. I thought his changeup was outstanding tonight. It was really a separator. Not quite as many curveballs, he threw some later in the game as he got going. He had plenty in the tank. There was no backing off.”
Walker wasn’t ready to come out after five.
“I was hoping,” he said. “I was trying to hide. I’m always trying to go as many as I can, and I definitely want to go more than six. I’m going to try to keep my pitch count down, but it’s tough when I feel like I’m making good pitches but they’re just fighting them off.”
In three starts this season, Walker has allowed a total of three earned runs in 18 innings. He’s struck out 14 batters and walked just two. He’s been Seattle’s most consistent pitcher.
“I think it kind of starts from last year where I was just being aggressive and attacking early and just having a confidence,” he said.
That run of success from last year started against the Indians on May 29 when he threw eight shutout innings and allowed two hits in a 2-0 win. He went 10-3 in his final 20 starts.
In three starts vs. Cleveland, Walker is 3-0 with a 0.45 ERA with 20 strikeouts and two walks.
“It seemed like they were being real aggressive,” he said. “And once they start being aggressive, I can really start using my off-speed pitches and keep them off-balance. I kind of pitched them backward a little after the third inning and went first-pitch curveball and changeup and went hard late.”
The bullpen continued the run. Peralta worked a scoreless seventh and picked off Rajai Davis at first to end the inning. Benoit worked around a base runner for a run-free eighth.
“Lockdown,” Servais said. “Our older gentlemen came in and did a really nice job.”
Cishek looked dominant in the ninth with a 1-2-3 inning, featuring two strikeouts for his second save.