Taijuan Walker admitted that he couldn't help but smile when he stepped onto the field at Minute Maid Park on Thursday afternoon. He wasn't wearing a uniform and he was still more than 24 hours until he would make his big league debut, but it was still a major moment in his 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's going to focus on preparing himself for that moment with a focused intensity.
Obviously, Walker was overjoyed when Tacoma Rainiers' manager John Stearns notified him before yesterday's game that he would be getting called up by the Mariners and starting Friday night in Houston.
“I’m excited," he said in the clubhouse on Thursday. "I’m pumped to be here."
His family was also excited. He made a facetime call to his mother, Nellie Garcia, in California, upon hearing the news. 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 a full preparation mindset. It's clear from Walker's business-like demeanor on Thursday that he isn't satisfied with just making it to the big leagues. He wants to be successful. After being sent back to Double A Jackson to start the season instead of Triple A Tacoma, Walker understood that some changes needed to be made.
“I’ve been working hard, especially this year," he said. "Getting sent back down to Double-A, 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. It’s been going good for me. 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 stuff. Walker has always had a blazing fastball that can touch 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 a process that is still continuing.
"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 pitchers.
Beyond the pitches on the mound, Walker's elevated maturity at the ripe old 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 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 could be truncated because of his innings limit. While the Mariners haven't listed an exact number, it is thought that don't want to see Walker pitch more than 160 innings this season. He's currently thrown 141 1/3 innings in the minor leagues. So it could be maybe two or three starts for him.
"I’m just going to go out there and take it day by day, one start at a time," he said. "Whenever they decide to shut me down, and they will. But as of right now, I’m going to prepare like I’m going to pitch the rest of the season.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik wouldn't say how many starts Walker would make or what the exact innings limit is for him.
"Guys can - lot of people look at differently - go 30 to 40 innings more than they did the year before," he said. " We are going to be careful. We aren’t going to do anything crazy with Taijuan."
Walker has briefly discussed what to expect in his debut with good friend and teammate, Brandon Maurer, who made his big league debut as a starter earlier this season.
“We talked a little bit here and there, but we really haven’t sat down and talked about what to expect," he said. "He’s told me, it’s the same game. Just go out there and keep doing what you’re doing and don’t change anything unless you have to. Make adjustments when needed. Like everyone else has been telling me, just stay within yourself and it’s pretty much the same game. Just make your pitches.”
Wedge isn't asking for Walker to do anything special in the debut.
“I just want him to go out there and do what he does, just be himself, enjoy the experience and have fun," he said. "Hopefully he’ll be able to allow himself to relax and have fun with it. That’s the best way to have early success, just really enjoy the moment.”
Zduriencik believes these moments will only help Walker be ready to make the leap into the Mariners rotation next season.
"I think this sets the tone for spring training next year," he said. "Get him up here for this period of time. Get him some starts at the big league level. I think it will be the experience that he needs to help him in the winter time having spent a month in the big leagues and understand what the big leagues are all about."