ARLINGTON, Texas — Now this is the Taijuan Walker the Mariners saw throughout spring training.
Walker dialed up seven dominant innings Monday before the bullpen closed out a 3-1 victory over the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park.
This makes back-to-back strong starts from Walker after opening the season with two disastrous performances.
“I felt I didn’t have my best fastball today,” he said, “but I think my fastball location was good. And I was getting a lot of ground balls. Keeping the ball down. The defense was working for me today.”
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Walker needed to be good, too, because the Mariners mustered just five hits, although two were singles with runners in scoring position.
Well, yes, since they were 0-for-12 with RISP in Sunday’s 4-2 loss to Minnesota in 11 innings and 1-for-24 in the three-game series against the Twins.
Walker (1-2) gave up just one unearned run and ended his night by retiring Robinson Chirinos on a fly to center (video link) with runners at first and third. That came on the first pitch after a brief visit from manager Lloyd McClendon.
“I was hoping he wasn’t going to pull me,” Walker said, “because I wasn’t going to be happy. But he gave me a shot to get out of it, and it worked out (well).”
McClendon admitted that it was a gamble to stay with Walker at that point.
“There were a couple of things that went into play there,” McClendon said. “The pitch count was relatively low. His stuff was still good. And those type of moments can build character.
“The only way you learn to deal with that type of adversity in tight situations is to go through it. He did a nice job.”
Walker’s final line showed six hits, one walk and five strikeouts.
In short, it was a lot like March, when he secured a spot in the Mariners’ rotation by going 4-0 while allowing just two earned runs in 27 innings over seven starts.
“I thought his last start was real good,” McClendon said, “and I said I thought he would build off of it. I think our pitching is starting to catch on. They’re starting to get a little competition between each other.”
Walker’s outing marked the sixth straight game in which the Mariners saw their starting pitcher give up two or fewer earned runs. The rotation has a 1.38 ERA in that span (six earned runs in 39 innings).
“That’s the key to us getting on a roll,” McClendon said. “Good pitching.”
The bullpen did its part, too. Charlie Furbush and Carson Smith combined on a scoreless eighth before Fernando Rodney walked a tightrope in the ninth by stranding two runners for his fifth save in six chances.
Texas starter Yovani Gallardo (2-3) and some sloppy infield defense provided the Mariners with a two-run gift in the first inning. Gallardo walked the first two hitters.
After Robinson Cano grounded into a force at second, on what could have been a double play, Nelson Cruz poked an RBI single to right. (video link)
It was Cruz’s sixth hit in six career at-bats against Gallardo. It also ended the Mariners’ o-fer skid at 13 fruitless at-bats with runners in scoring position.
The inning should have ended when Kyle Seager hit a double-play grounder to first, but shortstop Elvis Andrus threw wildly to first. Gallardo had no chance to catch the ball. Cano scored, and it was 2-0.
Texas got its only run on a two-out throwing error by shortstop Brad Miller in the fourth inning, but Walker stranded runners at second and third by retiring Shin-Soo Choo on a grounder to second.
The Mariners got that run back in the fifth after Justin Ruggiano worked back from a 1-2 hole for a two-out walk. He stole second, barely, and scored on Seth Smith’s single up the middle.
“Thankfully, Seth was able to deliver,” Ruggiano said. “That let everyone breathe a little easier going into the later innings.”
[caption id="attachment_33390" align="aligncenter" width="480"] Justin Ruggiano just beat the tag of Texas shortstop Elvin Andrus on a stolen base in the fifth inning. Ruggiano then scored the game's final run when Seth Smith delivered an RBI single. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)[/caption]