By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Go ahead, breathe a little easier, Seattle Mariners fans. Taijuan Walker’s first bullpen workout is in the rear-view mirror.
Sure, Walker and club officials will insist this was a non-event Monday when he delivered 25 pitches — all fastballs — after loosening up by playing catch with Felix Hernandez (who also had his first bullpen session).
Walker has been on a slightly delayed spring schedule because of shoulder soreness. Nothing major, everyone insisted. Even so, a crowd gathered when the club’s top prospect stepped to the rubber on a six-mound bullpen.
“It was funny, too,” Walker acknowledged. “Even my family came to watch me throw a bullpen. They were excited. It was good though. It was good to be back out there. First bullpen is out the of way.
“Now, I just need to move forward.”
Walker’s next session is scheduled for Thursday.
“Our rehab people have done a great job,” pitching coach Rick Waits said. “We’re not speeding him up. We’re not slowing down. He’s been feeling great, and it was time to get on the mound.
“We wanted to get him out (to throwing) over 200 feet first. He’s done that the last four or five days. He’s been throwing with Felix every day, and he feels great.”
How’s that for a pairing, Mariners fans? King Felix and the Prince of Taijuan. On this day, Hernandez offered up a few tips to Walker on throwing a changeup.
“He was throwing it a little up,” Hernandez said. “I told him to just finish it and throw it down.”
That’s no small thing. An improved changeup could be the pitch that turns Walker from a high-end prospect into everything the Mariners hope he can become.
“They don’t call it the ‘equalizer’ for nothing,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “That’s what it is, particularly with a guy who is that firm with his fastball. If he can control that pitch, then he’s really got something.”
Hernandez threw a longer session in his spring debut and mixed in some curveballs and changeups along with “just two” sliders. He plans to follow his past routine of a slow build-up to the regular season.
“Same as the last three years,” he said. “I talked to Rick (Waits), and he said we’ll do that same thing this year. Slow down a little bit and then get ready for opening day.”
Reliever Yoervis Medina also threw at the same time as Hernandez and Walker. They were the only pitchers to do so Monday in an abbreviated schedule prior to today’s first full-squad workout.
The Mariners, at least early in camp, are doing little to dampen expectations surrounding Walker and lefty pitching prospect James Paxton, who each made impressive debuts last season following late promotions.
Waits said both are equipped to handle those expectations.
“Yes,” he said. “I don’t even need to elaborate. I think they’re ready. Will they leave with us (for the start of the regular season)? We’ll see. But mentally? Preparedness? I think they are.”
Hernandez is even more emphatic, saying “they will” be in the rotation when the season opens March 31 against the Angels in Anaheim, Calif.
“They have a lot of talent,” Hernandez said. “They just need to keep working hard. That’s all they have to do.”
That and stay healthy — and Walker alleviated concerns regarding his shoulder Monday in a brisk session that lasted roughly seven minutes.
“The ball came out good,” McClendon said. “I was pleased by what I saw. Again, it’s a bullpen session. But he threw the ball fine. … I think he just needs to continue to improve. Build on last year.
“And, obviously, all of the cliches. Throw strikes. Work ahead. Those things are important. But I think if you watch this young man, he’s pretty much mechanically sound. He’s got a big arm.”
Even Walker admitted, “It felt good just to get back on the mound. It felt great. I’m ready to go.”
Maybe the Mariners were right. Maybe it was a non-event. But maybe, just maybe, they still found it easier to exhale once it was over.