Last year’s struggles, and successes, are why Walker believes he’s ready for the home opener. “I felt like I kind of matured to where I can control my emotions a little bit more,” he says.

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For Taijuan Walker, this is yet another step in his progression from promising, potential-filled prospect to proven pitcher in the big leagues with aspirations of even more.

On Friday night at a packed Safeco Field, the 23-year-old Walker will lead the Mariners out of the dugout and take the mound in the top of the first inning as the starting pitcher in the 2016 home opener against the Oakland A’s.

“I’m pretty excited,” he said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be loud. I’ve got my mom, brother and sister coming out. It’s really big.”


Mariners home opener vs. Oakland A’s at Safeco Field, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports

It’s not quite pitching on opening day, but it will be one of the largest crowds he’s ever pitched in front of in his brief big-league career, certainly the largest he’s pitched in front of in Seattle.

“I don’t have any concerns,” manager Scott Servais said. “I think he will be juiced up, and I think you’ll see a really good fastball. The thing with Taijuan — it’s the secondary stuff. Can he harness it? Can he get it in the strike zone and be the complete pitcher and not get locked into one pitch? I’m excited for his opportunity. I think he’s ready for it.”

In recent years in Seattle, opening day is one of the few games that will sell out during the season.

The closest situation that Walker has pitched in in his brief career came last season on April 15 at a packed Dodger Stadium. Walker, whose father is African-American, got the start on Jackie Robinson Day with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, appearing before the game as part of the celebration of the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. In the days leading up to it, he was asked about the honor of pitching in the game. It wasn’t lost upon him. When Walker stepped to the mound, there was a crowd of 51,287 filling the stadium.

“I know I got a little excited on Jackie Robinson Day and kind of got out of my game,” he admitted. “I was overthrowing a little bit. I’ve learned from that. I’ve just got to take a second, refocus and treat it like it’s any other game.”

Walker pitched four innings, giving up five runs on six hits with four walks and three strikeouts. That was his second outing of the season. His first came against the A’s in Oakland, where he looked tentative and struggled, giving up nine runs on nine hits with two walks and three strikeouts in 31/3 innings.

He winces at the mention.

“Oh yeah, I remember that,” he said. “I definitely want to go out and have a good outing because they got me pretty good.”

Those two outings were the first two of a nine-start struggle where Walker went 1-5 with a 7.33 ERA. Admittedly, he was pitching in fear of being sent down.

Finally, he realized he couldn’t pitch that way any longer. He changed his mindset and approach on the mound, and it clicked. In his final 19 starts, he posted a 9-3 record with a 3.87 ERA. That included a span of 15 starts where he went 8-1 with a 3.73 ERA and 91 strikeouts with just 13 walks in 94 innings.

Those struggles that turned into successes are why Walker believes he’s ready for the home opener.

“I went through a whole year in the bigs last year, and I went through some ups and downs,” he said. “I felt like I kind of matured to where I can control my emotions a little bit more.”

Walker showed up at spring training a different pitcher with a different plan. Since he wasn’t technically fighting for a rotation spot like in 2015, he was able to address his weaknesses.

“I was able to go in and kind of work on some stuff,” he said. “I know one of the biggest things I need to work on was my breaking ball. And I was able to do that. I’ve really focused in on it. I’ve added the slider and I’ve been focusing on that. I have some off-speed pitches that are really going to help me.”

Those off-speed pitches are critical because the scouting report to beat Walker is to lay off the secondary pitches and focus on jumping on his fastball. Last season, 64.8 percent of the pitches he threw were fastballs.

“I feel like it’s always going to be the game plan against me until I can show that I can throw my off-speed pitches for strikes,” he said. “I realized in spring training that I need to have a Plan B, and that Plan B is to pitch backwards. Plan A is always fastball first and establish the fastball. But if I need to, I feel pretty comfortable with my off-speed pitches if I have to pitch backwards.”

Is it a big game for Walker? Yes, but the M’s hope it won’t be the only one.

“It’s the big leagues,” Servais said. “If you want to be that top-of-the-rotation guy, you would hope — and I’m damn sure — he has aspirations of someday pitching the season opener, wherever that’s at. So he might as well get used to it. That’s just what happens.

“Hopefully as our season goes on, he’s pitching in very, very meaningful games in September and October.”