VIDEO: Taijuan Walker work to regain fastball effectiveness pays off
SEATTLE Home is still not sweet home for the first-place Seattle Mariners.
Starter Taijuan Walker’s teammates’ bats and gloves failed him over his mostly dominant, 7 1/3 innings Monday night. Then when Walker departed, the Mariners’ recently resurgent bullpen tanked, too.
“Not exactly the way we thought it was going to end,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said with a rueful chuckle.
Three relievers – including Vidal Nuno, who hit Stephen Vogt on his second pitch with the bases loaded, and Joel Peralta, who then allowed Danny Valencia’s two-run single – aided Oakland’s four-run eighth inning. All of those runs were unearned, thanks to two ground-ball outs shortstop Chris Taylor threw past first baseman Dae-Ho Lee into the box seats.
And Seattle returned home from a 5-1 road trip by losing ugly, 5-0 to the previously skidding A’s before 16,370 to open an eight-game homestand at Safeco Field.
If the Mariners just stayed on the road they’d have the best record in baseball. Seattle (26-18) fell to 8-11 at home. But because Texas also lost the Mariners remained 1 1/2 games ahead of the Rangers atop the AL West.
The Mariners were shut out at Safeco for the third time this season. The American League’s leading home-run team and second-highest scoring team has scored two or fewer runs eight times in 19 home games. The Mariners have averaging close to two runs fewer per game at home than on the road.
For the first six innings Monday night, Walker (2-4) looked King Felix-like. Using a 95-mile-per-hour fastball on which he’d focused the previous four days, he retired 16 consecutive Oakland batters. That was from Coco Crisp’s single to lead off the game to No. 9-hitter Jake Smolinski’s broken-bat single on a bail-out swing to begin the sixth. At the end of those half-innings, Walker mimicked Hernandez at his best, slowly strutting off the mound and looking around at those he was dominating.
When the 23-year old retired speedy Billy Burns on a bunt attempt with a runner on to end the Athletics’ top of the sixth, he punched his glove.
“From the first inning on, that was his best fastball. He was letting it fly,” Servais said.
“For a while there, they were overmatched.”
But when Walker finally got to his first three-ball count, in the seventh inning, Vogt punched back. Oakland’s No.-3 hitter, who ultimately said Walker was “great,” drove Walker’s high, 3-1 fastball deep into the right-field bleachers for a no-doubt home run.
Such is the value of pitching ahead in the count.
So ended the scoreless duel with Rich Hill. Not to mention Seattle’s four-game winning streak and Oakland’s four-game slide.
While his change-up and curveball had been his best pitches this season, foes had been batting .315 against Walker’s fastball. But Monday he got 13 of those 16 straight outs with his fastball.
“I was sticking to the game plan, mostly fastballs and change-ups. The fastball was working so we stayed with the fastball,” Walker said.
“It feels good. The fastball is my best pitch, and if I can have the command of that everything else plays off that.”
But with his offense generating nothing, it only took one fastball to Vogt to do him in. Walker ended up allowing five runs – only one earned – on four hits with one walk in six strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings.
He deserved far, far better than the hook and support he got in that eighth.
He got doomed by his teammates’ gloves yet again. The Mariners have allowed eight unearned runs in Walker's last five starts. Those have been four losses plus a no-decision, after two consecutive victories in April.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s batters failed to capitalize on its six hits against Hill in the first 2 2-3 innings.
Seattle loaded the bases with no outs in the second. But Chris Iannetta extended his skid to 0 for 9 with a strikeout, deposed former leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki grounded into a force out at home in his first at-bat of the season in the No. 8 lineup spot, and Taylor struck out swinging on three pitches.
That was the lost opportunity that lost the game for the Mariners. Hill (7-3) then retired 14 straight Mariners into the eighth.
Taylor was making his first start since a call-up from Triple-A Tacoma and red-eye flight to Cincinnati Sunday, when shortstop Ketel Marte went on the 15-day disabled list. After Taylor’s two errors is Seattle’s dismal eighth inning Monday, Shawn O’Malley seems likely to get more time at short until Marte’s sprained thumb heals.
“It’s tough. Definitely not the way I wanted to start out,” said Taylor, whose 2016 Mariners debut was his 85th career game over the last three seasons for Seattle. “But it’s a game of failure.”
For the Mariners right now, it’s that only at home.