The instructive thing to remember is that Taijuan Walker is just 20 years old.
That’s two years removed from high school.
Think about where you were and what you were like then.
Still, for extended moments at Cheney Stadium, it was easy to forget he’s two years removed from his senior prom.
The Seattle Mariners’ top pitching prospect made his Triple-A debut with the Tacoma Rainiers on Tuesday night amid gloomy skies and intermittent raindrops.
But Mother Nature wanted to see Walker pitch. On a night that featured drizzle, mist and even a full-on shower, the skies stayed just clear enough for Walker to pitch without delay or discomfort.
And in that brief, relatively precipitation-free period, Walker 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 just three hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He threw 87 pitches, 56 of them going for strikes. 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 a little nervous,” he said. “But I think that’s expected.”
The nerves hit him in the bullpen for warm-ups. As he walked into Cheney, he wasn’t so focused that he couldn’t stop and sign a few autographs for children.
Still, making his Triple-A debut is a big deal. It means Walker is one level closer to the big leagues, and with Safeco Field just 35 miles away, every player’s dream seems so close, so within reach.
For Walker, a prospect from whom so much is expected, the anticipation of moving a rung closer to the Mariners brings an added level of pressure.
“In the bullpen, there were a few jitters,” said his catcher, Jason Jaramillo, who played 119 games in the big leagues, mostly at catcher. “You could tell.”
But the best way to beat butterflies is by blowing fastballs by them. Walker channeled any anxiety into the first hitter he faced, Gary Brown.
He blew three consecutive fastballs by Brown, the San Francisco Giants’ 2010 first-round pick, for a strikeout.
“After that first inning and even after that first hitter, I just got into a little groove,” Walker said.
Kensuke Tanaka followed Brown’s strikeout by ripping a hard ground ball between Walker’s legs and into center field on a 2-2 fastball. But Walker coolly dispatched the next two hitters with a flyout and a groundout.
Walker showed the ability to be economical, needing just 11 pitches to make it through the second inning. He didn’t throw more than 17 pitches in an inning the rest of the way.
Beyond the pure talent of throwing a baseball hard and with movement, it was Walker’s 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,” Rainiers manager John Stearns said.
Jaramillo has a hard time believing it as well.
“I can’t,” he said. “The biggest thing is his composure, even more than his talent. 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 outs, Walker issued his first walk.
After getting ahead 1-2, he threw three consecutive fastballs on the outside corner that were called balls. All three could have or should have been called strikes by plate umpire Spencer Flynn. Walker was miffed, but he walked around the mound, gathered himself and got the next hitter to fly out.
“No problem,” Stearns said. “Mentally, he was in command of the whole show tonight. He was in charge of that game from start to finish.”
In the sixth inning, he gave up a two-out walk followed by a single to Brett Pill. It was the only time a runner reached second base against him. He calmly got Roger Kieschnick to bounce into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. That final pitch of the night was 95 mph.
Walker’s fastball, which touched 97 mph and sat right around 93-95 mph, drew oohs and ahhs from the announced crowd of 2,673. But for the Mariners, it was the use and success of his secondary pitches that looms as 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 Double-A Jackson was solid. It had a tight spin. Of the 13 curveballs Walker threw, eight were for strikes.
“I’m trusting it,” Walker said. “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,” Walker said. “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.”
You know who else had a similar outing in his first Triple-A start?
Felix Hernandez debuted in Fresno against the Grizzlies in 2005, throwing six innings and allowing no earned runs (one unearned) on five hits. He struck out four and walked one batter. He was the ripe old age of 19.
But let’s not start going there. Hernandez was a pitching prodigy, whereas Walker’s best sport in high school was basketball.
“Let’s not put too much pressure on him,” Stearns said. “Let’s let it happen as it goes.”
Indeed, it’s easy to see the failed start of Joe Saunders on Tuesday night and the uneven starts of Aaron Harang, and start envisioning Walker in a Mariners uniform this year.
That’s unfair to Walker. In a season when the Mariners were slightly forced to call up Mike Zunino a little prematurely, the same shouldn’t be done to Walker.
Even Walker knows he has to maintain perspective amid the success and hype.
“It’s right there, and it’s very exciting,” he said. “But at the same time, you have to take it one day at a time and one start at a time. I’ve been doing that a lot. I know last year, knowing it was still so close in Double A, I kind of got ahead of myself, and I think that kind of hurt me. This year I’ve just been taking it really slow.”
Take the advice of the 20-year-old. If he can be patient, we all can.Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish