This was step-up time for Taijuan Walker.
The Seattle Mariners had just put another starting pitcher, James Paxton, on the disabled list earlier Friday, and their rotation needed a shot in the arm.
Walker responded with the best start of his career in a 2-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field.
He permitted just two hits, both singles, over eight shutout innings while striking out eight and walking none.
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This was Walker, still just 22 years old, living up to his longtime billing as one of the game’s top prospects; the guy who pitched his way into the rotation with a dominant spring.
“I felt like in spring training,” he said, “I was in a rhythm. Today was (a matter of) trying to get back in that rhythm. I felt really good. I felt like I was back in spring form.”
Gone on this night was the guy who struggled through much of the season’s first two months in compiling a 7.33 ERA through nine previous starts.
“There is so much life to that fastball,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “It was just a dominant fastball. He threw it four out of five pitches, but it was beating us for the most part.”
Fernando Rodney gave up one run in the ninth but stranded the tying run at third base in securing his 14th save in 16 opportunities. It was his first save opportunity since squandering a three-run lead Tuesday in the ninth inning at Tampa Bay.
It was one of Rodney’s typical high-wire escapes, though. He retired the first two hitters, then issued a walk to Jason Kipnis and surrendered an RBI triple to Ryan Raburn before retiring Michael Brantley on a fly to right field.
Walker (2-5) needed to be as good as he was because Cleveland right-hander Trevor Bauer nearly matched him.
Bauer had struck out four in a row in a 0-0 game when Nelson Cruz pulled a one-out single through the left side in the sixth inning.
Seth Smith followed with a no-doubt blast to right field — 411 feet — on a 2-1 cut fastball for a two-run homer and a 2-0 lead. It was his fifth homer of the season. And it was, as it turned out, just enough.
“You’re hoping to get something over the plate,” Smith said. “You don’t know what it’s going to be. You just hope you’re in a good place for a good swing, and it shows up in a place you want to hit it.
Walker responded with a shutdown seventh inning — thanks to a backhanded web-gem catch by left fielder Dustin Ackley on Brantley’s twisting one-out drive into the corner.
Bauer (4-2) struck out 10 while allowing six hits and just the two runs in seven innings. The Indians used three relievers in the eighth, when the Mariners mounted — but couldn’t cash in — a two-on, one-out threat.
The victory pulled the Mariners back to .500 at 24-24. They have not been above .500 since they were 1-0 after Felix Hernandez beat the Los Angeles Angels in the season opener.
Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon, when asked why he pulled Walker after 102 pitches, responded with a stout defense of Rodney, whose ERA now stands at 7.08.
“There were a lot of factors in getting (Walker) out of there,” McClendon said. “Obviously, 102 pitches for a young pitcher. Tremendous outing. Something to really build on for his next start.
“The fact that my closer is 62 out of 66 (in save opportunities since the start of the 2014 season) had a lot to do with it. I want to touch on that. People talk about your closer, and you ought to get another closer.
“If somebody told me, ‘I can get you a closer. He’s going to be here the next two years, and he’s going to be 62 out of 66.’ I don’t think anybody in this room would say don’t go get that guy.
“Then when he blows a couple, you want to blow it up and get somebody else. I think that’s an unfair shot. I don’t like that.
“ERAs mean nothing when it comes to closers. What matters is whether or not you can get it done and close the game out.”