MARYVALE, Ariz. — Maybe a second after Keston Hiura viciously swung and missed at a riding 95-mph fastball for the third out of the third inning, a small but vocal pocket of fans, which had already made its presence known in the previous two innings, came alive in screams and cheers. They were there to see Taijuan Walker pitch in a game again.
As Walker sauntered off the mound in that familiar pigeon-toed gait Mariners fans can remember, they stood and applauded. He gave a quick nod and pointed to them. That group of family and friends had helped him through the two years of monotony, frustration, pain and doubt that comes with injuries, surgeries and the rehab that follows. This was about them as much as him.
“I had like 18 people here,” Walker said with a smile. “The ones that were screaming. Yeah, that was them.”
They had plenty scream about.
Walker pitched three innings, allowing one run on four hits with no walks and four strikeouts Monday in Milwaukee’s 2-1 victory.
He threw 43 pitches with 28 strikes — featuring a fastball that sat at 93 to 94 mph, that sinking change-up and a vastly improved curveball.
“The first two hitters I was a little nervous,” he admitted. “I was just trying to feel my way through. And after the second hitter, I finally started to relax and calm myself down.”
How did he do that?
“A couple of hard-hit balls, I guess,” he said.
Indeed, Walker fell behind 3-0 to Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers’ All-Star outfielder, on three consecutive fastballs not close to the zone to start the game. He came back with another fastball for a strike. But a 93-mph fastball on a 3-1 count was a cookie for Cain, who hit a laser of a line drive over the wall in left field.
Walker followed a similar pattern to the next hitter, Brock Holt. Two consecutive balls put him behind 2-0. Not wanting to walk a batter, Walker piped a fastball that Holt sent into right field for a single.
Just when it looked like Walker’s first outing of the spring would be short, he used his curveball to generate a swinging strikeout of Christian Yelich for the first out of the inning.
Walker allowed a double on a ground ball down the third-base line off the bat of Hiura to put runners on second and third. But he came back to get Justin Smoak to pop out in foul territory and Avisail Garcia to hit a soft ground ball to second to strand both runners.
“I wanted to fill up the strike zone effectively, so I just started attacking them,” he said. “I felt like I was trying to place the ball in there instead of being aggressive. I just started pounding the strike zone and got them to put it in play.”
Walker allowed a leadoff bloop single to Jedd Gyorko to start the second inning. He should’ve gotten a double play on Manny Pina’s ground ball to shortstop, but Shed Long mishandled the transfer at second base and couldn’t make a throw to first.
Undeterred, Walker got Jace Peterson to fly out to left and then exacted some revenge on Cain. After failing to get Cain to chase on an elevated 96-mph fastball with a 2-2 count, Walker tied him up with a 3-2 change-up. Cain was so fooled that he made an awkward swing on a pitch that might’ve otherwise hit him in the leg.
Walker’s third inning was clean. He froze Holt on a 0-2 fastball for a called strike three, got Yelich to bounce out to second and then ended his outing with the Hiura strikeout.
“I thought Taijuan Walker looked great tonight,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Certainly the first couple of hitters, it wasn’t great. But once he got it rolling, I thought his stuff was really good. The velocity was there, and he got the intensity and adrenaline going, which is good to see.”
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of Walker’s outing was the use of the curveball and the actual shape and action of the pitch. It’s nothing like the lollipop curveball he threw during his first stint with the Mariners.
“It’s about a million times better,” Walker said. “I switched to a spiked curve. I tried it before but I never really stuck with it. But I started again this offseason and spring and said, ‘Screw it, I’m going to stick with it good or bad and just keep throwing it.’ Finally, I’m comfortable with it to where I can throw it for strikes and throw it for swing-and-miss, put-away pitch.”
Servais credited the shorter arm swing as much as the grip.
“It’s quite a bit different,” Servais said. “This curveball is much more consistent with much more bite and more finish to it. With his arm stroke being shorter, he’s able to get out in front of it and stay on top of it. It’s going to be a key pitch for him.”
Walker is expected to slot into the No. 5 spot in the Mariners rotation, which means he’ll have an additional start before opening day. That means he could start three more times this spring, which would catch him up to other starters in the rotation.
“That will help me,” he said.
That he’s talking about pitches and at-bats instead of health and rehab timelines is a refreshing change for Walker. It’s been a long road back to this point.
He’s coming off two seasons in which he pitched a total of 14 innings. A partially torn ulnar collateral ligament ended his 2018 season in April and required Tommy John surgery. A strained shoulder capsule hurt his comeback hopes in 2019. He threw just one MLB inning, in the final game of the season.
This was different. This was an important step back to full health and baseball normalcy. It’s why his family had to be there to witness it.
“It felt good just to be out there and walking off the mound healthy,” Walker said. “It was something still in the back of my mind coming into it — How am I going to feel during it? How will I feel right after? And I feel really good right now.”