It didn’t matter that he wasn’t pitching Monday. The spectacle of the Seattle Mariners’ season opener — at home, especially — was the kind of moment Taijuan Walker had been waiting for.
The red carpet. The individual player introductions. His family in attendance. A sold-out crowd at Safeco Field. And, most importantly, his Day One presence on a big-league roster. He’ll never forget any of it.
“It was unbelievable,” the 22-year-old right-hander said Tuesday inside the Mariners’ clubhouse after throwing a pregame bullpen session. “Felix (Hernandez) on the mound, King’s Court going — it was awesome.”
For the first time in his young, much-anticipated career, Walker broke spring camp as part of the Mariners’ 25-man roster, meaning he begins the season as a member of the club’s starting rotation for the first time, too.
That was a goal many expected him to achieve in 2014 before inflammation in his right shoulder led the Mariners to shut him down shortly after spring training began.
More than a year later, Seattle’s top pitching prospect says he feels healthy and strong, and is ready to make his 2015 debut Friday in Oakland.
He’s pitched there before, allowing one run in six innings of relief during a 6-1 Mariners loss on Sept. 1. That performance was the catalyst for what turned out to be a relatively promising month — he also made one start in June and two in July after a lengthy rehab process following a shoulder impingement — and Walker finished the year with a 2.61 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 38 innings. He also posted a 6-4 record with a 4.81 ERA in 14 starts with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers.
His final big-league appearance yielded a loss, but it was by far his best showing in the majors. That was Sept. 24 when Walker pitched an eight-inning complete game in a 1-0 loss at Toronto, striking out six and allowing four hits — the kind of outing most envisioned when the Mariners selected him with the No. 43 pick in the 2010 draft.
“I feel like September was really good for me. I felt confident, strong,” Walker said. “The team was playing really well, too, so I felt like that just gave everyone that extra confidence to go out there and perform well. That Toronto start was a big game for all of us, for the whole team, and I knew I had to give it all I had to give my team a chance to win.”
This spring was even more tantalizing. Knowing he needed a strong camp to hold off Roenis Elias for the fifth spot in the rotation — though he’s actually slotted fourth now — Walker pitched better than anyone else on the roster, allowing only two earned runs (both on homers) and 10 hits in 27 innings while striking out 26.
In addition to a sharp fastball in the upper-90s, Walker’s cutter has morphed into a slider, and Mariners catcher Mike Zunino said he thinks Walker’s change-up has improved, too.
“I think that’s going to be a huge pitch for him,” Zunino said. “He throws one that’s a little bit harder, but it’s got great life to it. I think he’s going to be able to use that quite a bit vs. righties and lefties.
“I think he came into spring ready to pitch. Obviously, when you throw that hard, you get into the category of (just) throwing sometimes. But he definitely came in ready to pitch and wanting to learn how to get guys out.”
Especially with runners on base. Walker faced trouble a few times during spring, and navigated each of those situations with aplomb.
“I think that’s a test they were looking for — how do I react when I get runners on?” Walker said. “Do I overthrow, do I panic? So I think that was a big test for me. Also, when I gave up a home run against Anaheim, how would I react giving up a run? And I think those are also all big tests, and I feel like I handled myself pretty well.”
Now he will seek for the first time to handle the responsibility of pitching every fifth day in the major leagues.
“It sucked I got hurt,” Walker said, reflecting on his 2014 season. “But I learned a lot from being injured. I think that definitely helped me during spring — being focused and patient, and just more prepared.”