By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
The instructive thing to remember is that Taijuan Walker is just 20 years old.
He’s just three years removed from high school.
Think about where you were and what you were like then.
Still, for extended moments at Cheney Stadium on Tuesday night, it was easy to forget he’s just three years past his senior prom.
The Seattle Mariners’ top pitching prospect made his Class AAA debut with the Tacoma Rainiers on Tuesday amid gloomy skies and intermittent rain drops. But Mother Nature apparently wanted to see Walker pitch. On a night that featured drizzly rain, misting rain and even a full on-shower, the skies stayed clear long enough for Walker to pitch without delay or discomfort. And in that brief, relatively precipitation-free period, he delivered an outstanding performance against the Fresno Grizzlies in the Rainiers’ 1-0 win.
The hard-throwing right-hander pitched six shutout innings, giving up three hits, walking two and striking out four. He threw 87 pitches, 56 of them for strikes. And of the 23 batters he faced, he threw 16 first-pitch strikes.
He was dominant, yet efficient. He didn’t overpower hitters but he was more than effective against them.
“I was little nervous,” he said. “But I think that’s expected.”
Apparently the best way to beat butterflies is to blow fastballs past them. Walker channeled any anxiety into the first hitter he faced — Gary Brown. He threw three straight fastballs by Brown, the San Francisco Giants’ 2010 first-round pick, for a strikeout.
“After that first inning and even after that first hitter,” Walker said, “I just got into a little groove.”
He gave up his first hit to the next batter. Kensuke Tanaka ripped a hard groundball between Walker’s legs and into center field on a 2-2 fastball. But Walker dispatched the next two hitters with a pop out and a fly out to end the inning.
Walker showed the ability to be economical. He needed just 11 pitches to make it through the second inning, and never threw more 17 pitches in an inning the rest of the way.
Beyond the pure talent of throwing a baseball hard and with movement, it was his maturity on the mound that was most striking. He looked as controlled and composed as Rainiers’ reliever Brian Sweeney, who just turned 39.
“It’s hard to believe he’s 20 years old,” Tacoma manager John Stearns said.
Walker’s catcher, Jason Jaramillo, had a hard time believing it as well.
“The biggest thing is his composure, even more than his talent,” Jaramillo said. “He knows he’s got good stuff, and he’s confident in it. He just attacked the zone tonight. It was fun back there. Made my job real easy.”
In the third inning, with two out, Walker issued his first walk. After getting ahead 1-2, he threw three straight fastballs on the outside corner that were called balls. All three could’ve been called strikes by home plate Spencer Flynn. Clearly miffed, Walker walked around the mound, gathered himself and got the next hitter to fly out to end the inning.
“Mentally, he was in command of the whole show tonight,” Stearns said. “He was in charge of that game from start to finish.”
In the sixth inning, Walker gave up a two-out walk followed by a single to Brett Pill. It was the only time a runner reached second base against Walker. But he got Roger Kieschnick to bounce into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. That final pitch of the night hit 95 mph.
Walker’s fastball, which touched 97 mph and sat right around 93-95 mph, drew oohs and ahhs from the fans in attendance. But for the Mariners, it was the use and success of his secondary pitches that loomed more important in his development. Walker threw a cut fastball that ranged from 89-93 mph. It had good late movement. The curveball that Walker struggled to command all spring and early in the season with Class AA Jackson was solid. It had a tight spin. Of the 13 curveballs Walker threw, eight were for strikes.
“I’m trusting it,” Walker said of his curve. “It feels good right now. It’s been one of my out pitches. I just want to keep it going.”
Were there any flaws?
“I felt like my cutter wasn’t there and that’s one of my best pitches. There are some things I need to work on. Two walks, you know, I’d like to say I had zero or maybe one. Other than that, I’m happy with my start. We got a win.”
Stearns also was pleased.
“To think that he’s here doing this at age 20 at this level, you can really fantasize about what’s going to happen in the future for him,” Stearns said.
You know who else had a similar outing in his first start at Class AAA? Felix Hernandez debuted in Fresno against the Grizzlies in 2005, he threw six innings, allowing no earned runs (one unearned) on five hits with four strikeouts and one walk. He was the ripe old age of 19.
But let’s not go there. Hernandez was a pitching prodigy. Walker’s best sport in high school was basketball.
“Let’s not put too much pressure on him,” Stearns cautioned. “Let’s let it happen as it goes.”