The time is right, Taijuan Walker believes, to validate his long-held status as the Mariners’ top pitching prospect. And Wednesday served as a strong opening statement.
Walker delivered two strong innings against San Diego’s revamped lineup when the Mariners opened their 32-game Cactus League schedule with a 4-3 victory over the San Diego Padres in 10 innings at Peoria Stadium.
“My confidence, right now, is pretty high,” he said. “I think that’s going to help this spring.”
For one thing, Walker is healthy this spring as he battles lefty Roenis Elias for the final spot in the rotation. (Elias opens his campaign Thursday when the Mariners again play the Padres.)
And just by being healthy, Walker is already ahead of last year, when he battled shoulder soreness throughout the spring that kept him from pitching in any Cactus League games.
“I wasn’t even playing catch,” he said. “To be able to start a game this spring, and actually have a spring training, feels good.”
Walker’s shoulder soreness lingered into the season’s opening months and forced him to open the season on the disabled list.
But it wasn’t just the shoulder.
There were also concerns within the organization that Walker, still just 22, needed to mature into a big-league player. Those issues, as much as anything, are why he spent much of July and August at Triple-A Tacoma.
“The message has been delivered,” manager Lloyd McClendon said earlier this spring. “Whether he’s buying into it, I guess we’ll see. Listen, it’s not easy.
“It’s a hard thing for a young man to adapt to the rigors of the daily schedule here, the competition and showing up every fifth day. I think he’s starting to get it. We’ll see.”
Maybe we’re already seeing.
Walker showed signs of turning a corner last September after returning from Tacoma for the Mariners’ stretch run. He limited opponents to five runs in 23 innings over five appearances, including two starts.
That followed a subtle change in his delivery from the stretch — a more direct approach to the plate that Walker instituted last August after talking with Tacoma pitching coach Jaime Navarro and Detroit ace David Price.
“I just felt like it kept everything simple,” Walker said. “Not very much movement. From the stretch, it was just a quick leg kick and let it go.
“It helps that I’m just going to the plate. I’m not trying to do a bunch of stuff. You have some guys who can do it — like Felix (Hernandez), who has a turn and everything. But for me, it’s better to just keep it simple.”
Walker also displayed an improved feel for his change-up. It was that pitch that he used Wednesday to strike out Matt Kemp in the first inning with one out and a runner at third base.
“I’m throwing it to lefties and righties,” Walker said. “Just to have it, and know that I can throw it at any time in any count, for a strike… that helps big time. It helps to keep them off my fastball, too.”
Walker admitted he was “amped up” at start of Wednesday’s game — and it soon got him into trouble. He jumped ahead 1-2 on the game’s first hitter, Cameron Maybin, before fading to a full count.
Maybin then lined a single to left and, when Walker ignored him, stole second without a throw.
“I was going to hold (the ball on the steal),” Walker said, “but I was throwing an off-speed pitch. I threw a change-up that pitch. … It was one of those things.”
Maybin went to third on Yonder Alonso’s grounder to second, but Walker escaped unharmed by striking out Kemp and retiring Justin Upton on a routine fly to right.
“Two power guys,” Walker said, “so I went right after them. Especially with Kemp. We went fastball inside, three or four times, and then I threw a change-up (away).”
Walker then breezed through an 11-pitch second inning: grounder to short, strikeout and a fly to left. The final count showed 32 pitches, including 19 for strikes.
“I thought he threw the ball extremely well,” McClendon said. “I thought his change-up was good. I thought his slider is coming along just fine. His command of the fastball was good. He did a nice job.”
A good start, anyway.
HERNANDEZ ON TARGET
Felix Hernandez threw his first spring session of live batting practice and cited his goal as, “Fastball command. And I wanted to throw my breaking balls to see if they still worked.”
“It looked pretty good,” he said.
There weren’t any good swings — and just scant contact — from the collection of minor-league players assigned to face the King on Field 6 about two hours prior to the Cactus League opener against San Diego.
The Mariners opened their spring schedule by presenting a lineup loaded with players not expected to make the big-league club. That prompted a question from Hernandez to the regulars.
“I just asked them, ‘Why are you guys not in the lineup today?’ ” he said. “They said, ‘Because you’re not pitching.’ ”
Don’t look for McClendon to implement his projected platoons in left field and right field for spring games — i.e., Dustin Ackley (for example) will see playing time against left-handed pitchers.
“It’s not going to be a factor for me this spring,” McClendon said. “I want them to see both, because there may be times when they’re forced to see them in action in games.
“I won’t limit them, exclusively, to just left-handed or right-handed.”
McClendon previously indicated he intends to use Ackley and converted second baseman Rickie Weeks in left field, and split time in right field between Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano.
Ackley reports his wife, Justine, and infant son, Parson, arrived Tuesday night in Peoria. Ackley said, “Both are healthy and doing fine.”
The couple was en route to camp from their home in Michigan when Justine went into labor Feb. 19 near Oklahoma City. Parson Bennett Ackley, the couple’s first child, arrived six weeks premature.
While healthy, the infant required time on a respirator and in an incubator. Ackley remained in Oklahoma City until the situation stabilized before continuing to camp.
The Mariners’ game on March 12 against Oakland at HoHoKam Park in Mesa is shifting to a noon start to accommodate a request by Major League Baseball to aid HBO in taping a special on the fight against cancer.
MLB and HBO are collaborating on the project, which will also feature live tapings at four other Cactus League ballparks on the same date.
The Mariners/A’s game had been scheduled to start at 1:05 p.m.