Seattle Mariners

Dave Boling: Mariners’ Taijuan Walker inching toward greatness

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Taijuan Walker throws against the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning Wednesday. Walker threw five shutout innings before allowing a grand slam.
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Taijuan Walker throws against the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning Wednesday. Walker threw five shutout innings before allowing a grand slam. The Associated Press

For five innings, you saw everything that glittered. All the promise and power. The improving variety of secondary pitches.

This was the Taijuan Walker that the scouts and evaluators promised.

And the command; so thorough and convincing. So special.

The Seattle Mariners young starter mowed down the Tampa Bay Rays with such disdain that it seemed Wednesday afternoon that his moment had arrived.

If not quite ready to take the crown from King Felix Hernandez, he was looking more princely with every inning.

But into every young pitcher’s career, a sixth-inning like Walker’s arises. Then you wonder if he’s really that close or if this was a tantalizing tease.

The 23-year-old came into the game with a 1.97 ERA, having walked only three batters all season.

But in the sixth inning, he walked three Rays and surrendered a grand slam to DH Corey Dickerson. Shortly thereafter, he was called to the bench and came away with a no-decision on his record.

The Mariners rallied to a 6-5 victory in 11 innings, the final blast a walk-off homer by catcher Chris Iannetta.

The way Walker was rolling, it didn’t seem as if extra-inning heroism would be required.

Walker looks as if he was genetically designed to be a right-handed power pitcher, 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, with a smooth, economical delivery, the kind of thing that could be replicated for years.

He was pulled early in his last start because of neck spasms. But the only spasms early in this one were the Rays’ feeble attempts at making contact with Walker’s prime stuff.

The Rays came in batting . 223, the worst in the American League. But even considering that, they looked helpless against Walker. He had six strikeouts in the first three innings and upped that to eight through five.

Along the way, he was blowing fastballs past batters at 95-96 miles an hour, touching the edges and keeping them guessing about velocity, location and flight path from pitch to pitch.

Facing Brandon Guyer in the third inning, Walker snapped off a 78 mph curveball that appeared to stop at 57 feet and take a 90-degree turn to strike out Guyer.

It wasn’t a pitch, it was an optical illusion.

He needed only 66 pitches to make it to the start of the sixth.

And even as it started falling apart, Walker flashed some mental toughness. And maybe this is the biggest takeaway from his performance.

Tampa’s Evan Longoria came to the plate with men on first and second and one out. Longoria is a veteran and an All-Star, and Walker needed this out.

The two dueled for nine pitches, and when the decisive pitch came, it was a near miss that Longoria held off on.

On the next Walker pitch, Dickerson hit the grand slam to tie the score at 4-4.

Manager Scott Servais thought Walker was as good as he’s ever seen in the first five innings, and then “he just lost it for a little bit.”

Is that part of being a young pitcher?

“Yeah,” Servais said, grudgingly accepting that possibility. “You can come up with all kinds of excuses. I think he’s disappointed; he knows what kind of stuff he had today, and I think in his mind he thought he could throw deep into this one.”

Yes, that’s exactly what he was thinking. In retrospect, he should have stayed with the fastball more and not gotten too cute about catching the edges of the plate, he said.

So, to him, it felt close to the kind of game when it all could have come together.

“All my pitches were working pretty well today,” Walker said. “In that position, I can’t walk anyone, especially with a four-run lead.”

This is what you get during the ripening process of almost any young star. The brilliance and the promise are occasionally hyphenated by lapses, small gaps in performance that need to be bridged, in time, by experience and mental toughness.

Walker is awfully close, which he proved in the first five innings. But he’s not quite there, as he proved in the sixth.

Correction: In a Tuesday column about coaches endorsing political candidates, particularly Washington State’s Mike Leach, I reported Leach as the highest-paid state employee, which is true. But I incorrectly said that his salary was covered by taxpayers. I was informed that no state funds are used to pay salaries for WSU athletic department employees. My apologies, and thank you to the readers who pointed it out.

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