By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
HOUSTON — It was difficult to remember that Taijuan Walker is just 21 years old and was making his much-anticipated major league debut on Friday night at Minute Maid Park.
Standing 6-feet, 4-inches with a 210 pound frame that looks more wide receiver than starting pitcher, he doesn’t look 21. With his stone-faced and serious demeanor on the mound, he certainly doesn’t act 21.
If a person didn’t know any better and watched Walker’s outing in the Mariners’ 7-1 win over the Houston Astros on Friday night, they’d think Walker was an experienced, quality major league starter doing what he’s supposed to do on the mound.
It’s what the Mariners hope he will be some day.
Walker tossed five solid innings, giving up just one unearned run and allowing two hits, while striking out two and walking one to pick up his first big league win. He became the 11th Mariners pitcher to notch a win in his major league debut.
“He didn’t seem like he was 21 to me,” said his 42-year-old catcher Henry Blanco. “He acted like he had been there before.”
Admittedly, Walker had some butterflies when he toed the rubber to face Astros lead-off hitter Robbie Grossman in the bottom of the first. He threw his first two pitches in the dirt and fell behind 3-1 before coming back to get him to fly out.
“The first hitter, I was really nervous,” he said. “But after that, I got more comfortable as the game went on.”
It showed. Walker found his rhythm and gave a glimpse as to why he was considered one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, retiring the next seven hitters in a row.
“He did a nice job,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He was under control out there. You could tell he was kind of feeling his way early on. He was more and more comfortable as the game wore on and let the ball go a few times.”
The only thing that marred Walker’s stellar debut was the Mariners’ defense, which continued to be inconsistent. Miscues when Walker was on the mound led to the Astros’ only run, while the two “hits” he allowed were plays that should’ve been made.
Walker hadn’t allowed a hit through the first two innings. With two outs in the third inning, Jonathan Villar hit a hard line drive to left field. Raul Ibanez took three steps in on the ball, and then realized it was a mistake, retreated and tried to make a leaping grab. The ball hit off the top of his glove and then off the wall for a double.
Villar scored moments later when Justin Smoak dropped a throw from Brad Miller on Robbie Grossman’s ground ball to shortstop. It all led to an unearned run and gave the Astros a 1-0 lead.
The defensive woes continued. L.J. Hoes hit a ground ball to third base. Kyle Seager got caught in between hops and couldn’t make the play. It also was ruled a hit. It also should have been an out.
But Walker, whose maturity had been lauded by the organization heading into the start, stayed poised.
“Really right there, I just want to keep pounding the zone and keep making them put the ball in play,” he said. “That’s what I did.”
Walker got Jose Altuve to fly out to right field to end the inning.
“It was probably the only time I said something to him over the course of the evening coming off the field,” Wedge said. “I really liked the way he handled himself. It didn’t speed up on him and he kept his mind in the moment. The focus stayed with him.”
From there, Walker worked the next two innings without incident. He did issue a two-out walk to Brett Wallace in the fourth inning, but nothing came of it.
“It’s just the same game pretty much,” Walker said. “If you execute your pitches, it’s all the same.”
Walker got a lot of help from Dustin Ackley on the night. Not only did Ackley provide a good portion of the offense, racking up a career-high four hits and driving in a career-high four runs, he also gave Walker some defensive help after it had let him down earlier.
With two outs in the fifth inning, Grossman hit the ball hard into right-center field. Ackley, who was playing Grossman shaded toward left-center, took off after the ball.
“You’re just running, not thinking about anything and you know you have a chance to catch it,” Ackley said.
He covered the cavernous Minute Maid outfield and at the last second made a sliding basket grab on the warning track to get the out.
A week ago he might not make that play. Two weeks ago, he certainly doesn’t it.
“Everything for me in the outfield is kind of learning on the fly, just how to approach balls,” he said. “I’ve never had a play where I’ve slid like that at the wall and had to avoid running into it.”
Wedge knows they are asking a lot from Ackley in transitioning to the outfield at the major league level.
“It’s been somewhat unfair to him having to learn on the fly up here in center field or the outfield in general,” Wedge said. “You see his progress whether it be jumps on the ball or routes or angles. You really see him getting better from week to week.”
Ackley’s hitting has been getting better since July. With the 4-for-5 night Friday, he is now hitting .364 (40-for-110) since the All-Star break and he is hitting .411 (30-for-73) in August.
Ackley tied the score in the fourth inning with a single to right field to score Kendrys Morales. Abraham Almonte then beat out a double play to score Justin Smoak from third to push the lead to 2-1.
Ackley added to the Mariners’ lead in the fifth inning, hitting a fast ball into center field with the bases lead to score two runs.
“He has such a good swing and he’s letting that swing play for himself,” Wedge said.
Wedge lifted Walker after five innings and 70 pitches. The Mariners plan to monitor Walker’s innings count and pitch limits closely.
“It was a good time to get him out of there,” Wedge said. “We talked about it. With it being his first time up here in the big leagues if he was in a certain pitch range I wasn’t going to send him back out there to potentially have him go somewhere I didn’t want him to go. We felt like that was a good time to get him out of there.”
Walker, who has now thrown 1461⁄3 innings on the season, still felt he could pitch more. But was in no position to argue.
“They didn’t say too much about it,” he said. “I was a little upset I came out early but I understand why.”
Seattle’s bullpen held Houston scoreless over the next four innings.