The right-hander took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and struck out 11 as the Mariners remain 2½ games back in the American League's second wild card.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — This was the team that put him down. These were hitters that knocked him flat with a barrage of first-inning homers. The Los Angeles Angels sent him reeling to rock bottom.
On Sept. 3 at Safeco Field, Taijuan Walker endured the worst outing of his professional career, giving up six runs on six hits, including three straight homers. He never got out of the first inning. After he was pulled with two outs, he left the mound to loud vocal displeasure from Mariners fans.
Ten days later, Walker walked off the mound at Angel Stadium having thrown a three-hit shutout in Seattle’s 8-0 win, while his mom, cousins, friends and former coaches chanted his name. He was perfect for 5 2/3 innings, didn’t allow a hit for six innings and struck out 11 to throw the first shutout of his career.
Mariners @ Angels, 7:05 p.m., ROOT Sports
“It starts with Taijuan Walker and ends with Taijuan Walker,” manager Scott Servais said. “Tonight was really fun to watch. Total command of the game.”
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And the Mariners? Well, they won their seventh straight game to improve to 77-68 and remain 2½ games out of the AL’s second wild card and only half a game behind the Yankees and Tigers.
How could Walker be so different from one start versus the Angels to the next in just 10 days?
Well, it wasn’t just the baseball gods exhibiting the randomness of the game. No, this was about making a change to get the change in results. And it started after Walker could barely lift his voice above a whisper after that Saturday evening loss in Seattle.
Hours after the 10-3 drubbing, when all of his teammates had left for home, Walker wandered into pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre’s office looking for help. The embarrassment from earlier in the evening was a low point in an already disappointing season. He was broken and without answers.
“Deep down, it’s hard to admit you’re lost and searching, but he was,” Stottlemyre said. “He has a lot of pride. He sat on the bench and buried his head after getting his butt kicked. And as a coach, you don’t like to see that. But he needed that. He needed to go through that. That was the turning point.”
And so it began.
The two men went over the brief outing, pitch by painful pitch. Then Stottlemyre outlined the changes that Walker needed to make to his mechanics — changes he had mentioned before but that had fallen on semi-resistant ears of a 24-year-old that had experienced success in the big leagues doing it the previous way.
“He told me, ‘You have to do this,'” Walker said.
So each day since, Walker and Stottlemyre work on the changes — a higher leg kick and more hip turn — in pregame catch sessions, daily video lessons and midweek bullpens. The hints of it helping were there in his previous start — a win over the Rangers. But it all came together against the Angels.
“Three weeks left in the season, it’s kind of weird to change mechanics,” Walker said. “But we’ve been out there working at it and I felt really good today. I told Mel three days ago when we went out to play catch that I think I’ve got it.”
Walker was brilliant for the first five innings, not allowing a hard-hit ball. He struck out seven over that span, including five straight. He knew he hadn’t allowed a base runner.
“My legs were getting heavy and my stomach was starting to turn a little bit,” he said. “I felt like the game was taking so long, and taking forever.”
His bid for perfection was broken up by a throwing error by Ketel Marte with two outs in the sixth inning. The Angels got the first hit of the game to start the seventh on a Kole Calhoun leadoff single. But they wouldn’t get a run off him. He gave up a one-out single in the ninth, but the next pitch he got a game-ending double play.
“They kept asking me how I felt,” Walker said. “I told them I was good and just give me a short leash.”
The Mariners gave him plenty of run support, grabbing a 2-0 first-inning lead in the loudest and most impressive fashions. With Norichika Aoki on first base with a leadoff single, Nelson Cruz worked a 3-1 count off Angels starter Alex Meyer. The tall right-hander threw a 93 mph fastball on the inside half of the plate that Cruz was looking for.
He unleashed that short, violent swing, getting his hand through and turning on the cookie. The result was a terrifying sound that only a handful of hitters can produce.
Cruz launched a towering homer to deep left field that had Angels left fielder Jefry Marte standing and watching after two steps.
Cruz’s homer was the 200th the Mariners have hit this season.
Seattle added two more runs in the second inning off of Meyer. The first was manufactured. Leonys Martin led off with a single, stole second, moved to third on Daniel Vogelbach’s ground ball out to second and scored on Ketel Marte’s sacrifice to center. The team’s hottest hitter, but unlikeliest power threat, got into the long ball action. Aoki jumped on a first-pitch fastball, driving it over the wall in right for his third homer of the season to make it 4-0.
Seattle turned the game into another rout in the sixth inning. Seattle loaded the bases with two outs and Seth Smith cleared them with one swing, hitting his second grand slam of the season. Smith sat on a 1-1 changeup from Mike Morin and drove it over the high wall in right field for his 14th homer of the season.