SEATTLE — If Taijuan Walker is to take the next big step, as many expect this season, it starts Friday night at Safeco Field when he takes the mound for the Mariners’ home opener against the Oakland Athletics.
"I’m ready," he declared. "I’m anxious. I feel pretty good. I threw a bullpen (workout Tuesday in Texas), and it felt really good."
Walker, at 23, has long been viewed as the heir apparent to Felix Hernandez as the frontman in the Mariners’ rotation — even if the King, who turns 30 on Friday, remains years away from surrendering the crown.
Pitching the home opener, amid the hoopla and in front of a sellout crowd, is part of the ongoing development process.
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"It’s the big leagues," manager Scott Servais said. "If you want to be that guy, a top-of-the-rotation guy…I would think he has aspirations some day of pitching the season opener. So you might as well get used to it."
Walker got a feel for the heat of added spotlight roughly a year ago when he pitched on Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium. He grew up near LA, in Yucaipa, Calif., and here he was surrounded by some of the game’s royalty.
Adding to the emotion, Walker watched as Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax escorted Robinson’s widow, Rachel, to the mound in the pre-game ceremonies as a din enveloped Chavez Ravine.
It was powerful stuff for anyone — but especially for Walker as one of the game’s diminishing number of African Americans. Minutes later he was on the mound, Koufax’s mound, and trying to reel himself in.
It didn’t go well.
Walker gave up three runs in the first inning and had allowed five when pulled for a pinch-hitter in the fifth. The Mariners went on to lose 5-2.
"I know I got a little excited at times on Jackie Robinson Day," he recalled. "I kind of out out of my game. I was overthrowing a little bit.
"But I’ve learned from that, and I know I’ve just got to take it in for a second and then refocus and treat it like it’s any other game."
The game at Dodger Stadium followed an even more disastrous outing in his previous start, his first of the season, when he gave up nine runs in 3 1/3 innings at Oakland in a 12-0 loss.
"I remember it," Walker confirmed. "I definitely want to go out there and have a good outing against them (Friday) because last year they got me pretty well. I’d like a little payback this time."
The games at Oakland and Los Angeles were part of a rough stretch for Walker at the beginning of last year. He was 1-5 with a 7.33 ERA through his first eight starts before finding a comfort zone.
"I went through a whole year in the bigs last year, " he said, "and I went through some ups and downs. I think I matured in that I can control my emotions a little more."
The final four months last season were pretty good: 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 20 starts. He strikeouts zoomed and his walks plummeted: 118 and 17 in 126 2/3 innings. Everything suggested Walker had turned the corner.
"I’ve seen Taijuan Walker dating back to high school," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "That’s a guy with an elite upside. He made great progress last year, and you started to see some of what he was capable of."
Walker’s personal evolution continued this spring when he worked to harness his off-speed pitches — he ditched his cutter for a slider — in an effort to prevent opposing hitters from sitting on his fastball.
"I feel that’s always going to be the game plan against me," he said, "until I show I can throw off-speed pitches for strikes. And I realized in spring training that I need to have a Plan B, and that Plan B is to pitch backwards.
"Plan A is always establish the fastball. But if I need to, I feel pretty comfortable right now with my off-speed pitches, that I can pitch backwards."
Now comes the test of doing it in the spotlight.
"I think he will be juiced up," Servais said. "I think you’ll see a really good fastball. The thing with Taijuan is the secondary stuff. Can he harness it, can he get it in the strike zone, and be the complete pitcher?"
That’s the plan.
"It’s going to be fun," Walker said. "It’s going to be loud. My mom, brother and sister are coming out. It should be a good one."
HOME OPENER HIGHLIGHTS
It’s been 27 years (and a few days) since Ken Griffey Jr. burst on the scene as a heralded 19-year-old rookie. On Friday night, he will throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Mariners’ home opener as a Hall of Fame electee.
Griffey’s participation highlights the promotional activities surrounding the 7:10 p.m. game against the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field. The gates open at 4:40 p.m.
Those who get there early can take part in a special countdown at the Home Plate Gate with broadcasters Rick Rizzs and Aaron Goldsmith along with the Mariner Moose. Any actual counting figures to be done by the Moose.
The pre-game ceremony starts at 6:30 p.m. and will be carried live by Root Sports Northwest, which will begin live coverage at 6 p.m. Some pre-game highlights (in addition to Griffey’s ceremonial pitch):
***Jesse Bailey, a 13-year-old from Spanaway, is the Make-A-Wish child who will make the traditional first run around the bases. Jesse is being treated for a brain tumor.
***There will be a remembrance and a moment of silence for former Mariners outfielder Dave Henderson, who died on Dec. 27 at age 57. Henderson was the club’s first-ever draft pick in 1977 and spent six of his 14 seasons with the club.
***Nelson Cruz will receive his Silver Slugger award as the American League’s best designated hitter in 2015.
***Trainer Rick Griffin will be recognized for his induction into the Washington State Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame. He is in his 34th season on the Mariners’ training staff.
***The national anthem will be performed by Marine Captain Skye Martin, who is the public affairs officer for 12th Marine Corps District in San Diego. The color guard will be the I Corps Command Honor Guard at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The Mariners are reminding fans to leave sufficient time for entry via the walk-through metal detectors at security checkpoints at all gates.
An annual survey to assess the cost of attending a major-league game identifies Safeco Field as baseball’s fifth-priciest venue.
Personal finance website www.GOBankingRates.com compared the cost at all 30 ballparks for two tickets, two hot dogs, two beers and parking. The price at Safeco Field was $94.71.
"A hot dog at this stadium costs $4.50," the survey noted, "but Safeco Field also offers sushi, salmon, and other seafood, which make Safeco the second-best stadium for food, according to Bleacher Report."
The only more expensive parks: Fenway Park in Boston ($157), Wrigley Field in Chicago ($116.06), Yankee Stadium in New York ($109.40) and the Rogers Centre in Toronto ($109.38).
The two stadiums in the Los Angeles area were the cheapest. Angel Stadium in Anaheim was $47.60, and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was $55.10.
It was 39 years ago Friday — April 8, 1977 — that the Mariners won for the first time in franchise history when Bob Stinson and Larry Milbourne delivered RBI doubles in the ninth-inning for a 7-6 walk-off victory over the California Angels.
The victory came after the Mariners opened the season with two shutout losses to the Angels.
The Mariners open their home schedule at 7:10 p.m. Friday with the first of three weekend games against Oakland at Safeco Field.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker (11-8 with a 4.56 ERA in 2015) will start against Athletics lefty Eric Surkamp, who was recalled from Triple-A Nashville to replace injured Felix Doubront.
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners