Walker allows one run on three hits in seven innings and Zunino hits a two-run double and homer in strong showing against the Los Angeles Angels.
PEORIA, Ariz. — They are two of the foundation pieces of the organization’s long-term future, and their performance this season could be vital in the Seattle Mariners’ success in reaching the postseason for the first time since 2001.
Taijuan Walker and Mike Zunino are far from finished products as baseball players. They are still more potential than proven. But this spring, both players seemed to have taken major steps in changing that ratio of success.
On Monday, they served up another display of that hopeful growth in a 5-3 win over the Angels at Peoria Stadium.
Mariners 5, Angels 3
at Peoria Stadium
Notable: With both teams rolling out what should be close to their opening batting orders, the Mariners prevailed behind the hitting of Mike Zunino and the pitching of Taijuan Walker. Zunino went 2 for 3 with a two-run double and a solo homer — his seventh of the spring. Walker surrendered his first run of the spring on a second-inning solo homer from Matt Joyce. He allowed back-to-back singles after the homer, but then settled in and retired the next 17 batters. He pitched seven innings, giving up the one run on three hits with five strikeouts and no walks. … Kyle Seager added an RBI single, while Robinson Cano had two hits, including his first homer of the spring — a solo shot of Joe Smith.
Player of the game: Many people will see the home run from Zunino, which gives him the second highest total in the Cactus League with seven — two behind Chicago’s Kris Bryant. But it was the two-run double that was the most impressive piece of hitting. After striking out in his first at-bat against Angels starter Nick Tropeano, Zunino fell behind 1-2. But he didn’t give in, not swinging at balls out of the zone and fouling off pitches. He finished the eight-pitch at-bat by pulling a double down the left-field line to score two runs.
On Tap: The Mariners travel to Goodyear Park on Tuesday to face the Cleveland Indians. Right-hander Felix Hernandez will get the start for Seattle, while lefty Bruce Chen will start for Cleveland. First pitch is set for 1:05 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on mariners.com and on delay on ESPN 710
Making his sixth start of the spring, Walker showed why he beat out Roenis Elias for the final spot in the Seattle starting rotation. He tossed seven strong innings, allowing his first run of the spring while giving up three hits with five strikeouts and no walks. He improved to 3-0 this spring with a 0.36 earned-run average.
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Matt Joyce led off the inning and jumped on a first-pitch fastball, launching it off the batter’s eye for a solo home run. It snapped a string of 19 scoreless innings for Walker.
“I still think the one run he gave up wasn’t a bad pitch,” Zunino said. “He threw a good fastball down in the zone and Joyce did a good job of driving it.”
The next two hitters — David Freese and Erick Aybar — both singled off Walker putting runners on first and second with no outs.
“I just tried to stay calm, get a ground ball for a double play and try to get out of it,” Walker said. “I didn’t try to do too much.”
He did just that.
Walker got C.J. Cron to ground into a 5-4-3 double play and then struck out Chris Iannetta to end the inning.
“One thing we have to caution him about is making sure he pitches and not overpower people,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He got in a little bit of pattern there and against a good team, that’s a dangerous thing.”
That was all the Angels would muster against Walker. Following the Aybar single, he retired 17 straight batters to close out the game.
“He did a nice job,” McClendon said. “He worked ahead, used all of his pitches, worked in and out. It was an impressive outing.”
Walker isn’t spending any time patting himself on the back about his accomplishments this spring. He knows spring numbers are meaningless and the regular season beckons.
“I’m just trying to stay in the moment and taking it one start at a time,” he said. “I don’t want to look too far ahead. I’ve done that in the past and it hurt me. I wanted to come in and compete and go after hitters and show them that I was ready.”
Zunino provided much of the run support for his pitcher.
After three straight singles to start the fourth inning from Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz tied the score at 1-1, Zunino stepped to the plate with runners on second and third against Nick Tropeano.
Zunino had struck out on three pitches in his first at-bat and seemed destined to strike out in four pitches after falling behind 1-2. But he didn’t give in. He refused to chase pitches out of the zone and fouled off borderline pitches. On the eighth pitch of that at-bat, he yanked a double down the left-field line to score the runners.
“I wanted to get something early I could drive,” he said. “I was probably a little too aggressive … but I was able to work the count back full. In that first at-bat, I was able to see everything he had so I was familiar. I just battled until I could get something up in the zone and he left a changeup up on 3-2.”
Much has been written about Zunino trying to be better with two strikes this season. He struck out a team-high 158 times last season, while hitting just .199 with a .254 on-base percentage.
“That’s what he’s been working on all spring — the ability to put the ball in play with two strikes and gaining the knowledge and understanding of what they’re trying to do you,” McClendon said. “He continues to grow.”
In terms of growth, would Zunino have been able to have that type of at-bat a year ago?
“I’d like to say yes, but I think it could have been different,” he said. “I thought he threw some good pitches that a year ago I probably would have been a little too aggressive with, but it’s something I continuing to try and build on and learning myself and learning the strike zone and trusting myself with two strikes.”
Zunino didn’t get to two strikes in his next at-bat in the seventh inning. Nope, he jumped on a first-pitch changeup from Tropeano and put it over the wall for his seventh homer of the spring. He’s just two behind Chicago’s Kris Bryant for most in the Cactus League.