For a 21-year-old kid with electric pitching talent and a seemingly carefree disposition, Taijuan Walker had a lot on his mind Wednesday afternoon at Safeco Field.
He knew his latest call-up to Seattle would be for a duration of only a few hours. He knew that between Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon and an anonymous scout, the reviews of his past two Triple-A starts had not been particularly encouraging.
He knew that if the Mariners make a major deal before the nonwaiver trade deadline expires July 31, it’s possible he’ll be included in the exchange.
He knew, too, he was having mechanical issues affecting the command of his fastball against the New York Mets.
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All in all, it was not shaping up as a great day for somebody regarded among the top five prospects in baseball.
And then, in the time it takes for a 94 mph pitch to travel from the mound to the plate, everything else on Walker’s mind turned insignificant.
Facing the Mets’ Ruben Tejada with two outs in the fifth inning, Walker fired a fastball that caromed off Tejada’s helmet, dropping the shortstop and silencing a matinee crowd full of festive day-campers.
Walker wasn’t sure how to react. He took a few steps toward the plate, as if to explain that his high-and-inside pitch was unintentional, but the mood was too urgent for apologies.
Finally, after about a minute, Tejada was able to stand up and walk off the field.
“I’ve never hit anybody in the head before with a fastball,” Walker said. “It’s a scary thing. You kind of have to shake it off and get back in the game, but it is tough.”
Mariners pitching coach Rick Waits understood how the incident could rattle Walker.
“It’s gonna happen sometime in your career,” Waits said. “You just have to know you weren’t trying to do it. The ball got away from you. Now you’ve got to recollect your thoughts and get back out at the hitters and try to win a ballgame.
“Every pitcher goes through something like that. I did, although I didn’t throw very hard. I probably didn’t hurt the guy.”
Walker walked three of the next four batters before the ball was turned over to reliever Dominic Leone in the sixth. However, Waits believes the starter’s control problems weren’t so much the consequence of frazzled nerves than a young, right-handed pitcher still learning how to deal with left-handed hitters at the highest level.
“All six of his walks were to left-handers,” Waits said. “He kept missing away to them.
“It’s something he’s got to work on more.”
Walker, who gave up two earned runs and was charged with the 3-2 defeat, took his prearranged demotion to Tacoma in stride.
“There are things I know I need to work on,” he said. “I’d rather come up here at my best.”
Walker’s mature attitude about the awkward one-and-down stint appealed to McClendon, whose remarks about the pitcher Wednesday were quite more sympathetic than those offered last week.
“One thing we need to remember is this young man is 21 years old,” McClendon said. “Most kids 21 are still in college. He’s doing pretty good. He’s gonna be a pretty good pitcher at this level, and I know he’s committed to working hard at it.
“I liken his situation to Mike Zunino,” McClendon went on, referring to the Mariners catcher whose fast-track vault from Double A to the majors found him playing only 52 games with the Rainiers last season. “I said Zunino’s gonna be all right; he just doesn’t have a lot of at-bats under his belt. It takes time to get those.
“Taijuan doesn’t have a lot of innings under his belt, but he’ll be all right.”
If it’s any consolation to Walker, the Mariners’ pitching coach might be his No. 1 fan.
“I’ve seen it for four years now: He’s got it in there,” Waits said. “He’s young. He’s got a lot of courage, and he’s not afraid to work hard. He’ll figure it out, and he’ll figure it out quick.
“Besides, you think of him having a bad game, and he only gave up two runs. That should be something that’s encouraging.”
Walker struck out five. He briefly settled down after a rocky first inning began with a four-pitch walk to Mets leadoff man Eric Young Jr. But the fastball to the head of Tejada, and the three walks that followed it, were evidence of a work in progress.
A bad game, perhaps, but it could have been worse.