HOUSTON — Taijuan Walker admitted he couldn’t help but smile when he stepped onto the field at Minute Maid Park on Thursday afternoon.
He wasn’t wearing his Seattle Mariners uniform and was still more than 24 hours away from making his big league debut, but it was still a major moment in Walker’s career. Yet, it didn’t feel like his welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment.
“It’s going to hit me when I’m on the mound tomorrow right before my first pitch,” he said.
Until then, he said he’s going to focus on preparing for that moment.
Walker was overjoyed when Tacoma Rainiers manager John Stearns notified him before the game Wednesday that Walker would be called up by Seattle and would start Friday night against the Astros.
“I’m excited,” Walker said in the clubhouse on Thursday. “I’m pumped to be here.”
His family is also excited. Upon hearing the news, Walker made a Facetime call to his mother, Nellie Garcia, in California. But she already knew what he was going to tell her.
“She found out through Twitter,” he said. “She’s always on Twitter, really active. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when I called her, but it was still exciting. We Facetimed, and my brother and sister were there. I got on the phone and they just started screaming. It was awesome.”
But that initial excitement has subsided into full-preparation mode. It was clear from Walker’s business-like demeanor Thursday that he isn’t satisfied with just making it to the majors. He also wants to be successful. After being sent to Double-A Jackson instead of Triple-A Tacoma to start the season, Walker knew he needed to make changes.
“I knew I had a lot of stuff to work on. So I’ve been trying to go out there every day with a purpose, with something new to work on,” he said. “This year has been going well. Just to finally get the call-up, it feels like all the hard work I’ve put in is finally paying off.”
Much of that work has been focused on developing his secondary pitches. Walker has always had a blazing fastball that can reach 99 mph. But to have consistent big league success, Walker needed to find command and consistency with his cut fastball, curveball and change-up. It’s an ongoing process.
“It’s gotten better,” he said. “My curveball still needs improvement, but it’s improving. The last couple of starts it’s been better. My cutter is probably my second-best secondary pitch. My change-up is getting there. It’s not where I want it to be. But I’m still confident enough to throw at any time along with all my other pitches.”
Beyond the pitches, Walker’s elevated maturity at the tender age of 21 is what made the decision to call him up easier.
“That’s part of it,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “That’s something we talked about. For a young man, he is mature. He has a good way about him, and (he) pitches with a great deal of confidence. But he is a young player, a young pitcher, and he has a lot of firsts ahead of him. I just hope he goes out and enjoys it and lets his ability take over.”
Walkers knows his number of starts with the Mariners will be few because he’s on an innings limit. The Mariners haven’t listed an exact number, but it’s thought they don’t want to see Walker pitch more than 160 innings. He’s currently at 141ª innings, so he might get only two or three starts.
“I’m just going to go out there and take it day by day, one start at a time,” Walker said. “Whenever they decide to shut me down, they will. But as of right now, I’m going to prepare like I’m going to pitch the rest of the season.”
MORSE WAIVED, CLAIMED
The Baltimore Orioles placed a waiver claim on Mariners outfielder Michael Morse. CBS Sports first reported the claim on Thursday morning. The Mariners and Orioles have until noon Friday to work out a trade.
The Orioles are in need of a right-handed bat and were interested in Morse at the trade deadline, despite his injury issues and lack of production – he’s hitting .158 with two homers and four RBI since returning from the disabled list July 30.
Walker makes his debut against Astros right-hander Brad Peacock (3-4, 5.67 ERA) at 5:10 p.m. Friday on Root Sports and 710-AM.