(Here’s today’s Mariner minor-league report)
As you can see from the picture above, the presence of Taijuan Walker on the mound on a Friday night against the Tennessee Smokies didn’t exactly send Jackson, Tenn., into a frenzy of excitement. The listed crowd was 1,300 for the game, which featured another impressive outing by the 19-year-old Walker in a 3-0 win by the Jackson Generals — their fifth straight.
Yeah, I was there at Pringles Park, a charming little ballpark overlooking Interstate 40, which I’m told is the busiest East-West interstate in the country. As I mentioned yesterday, I’m going to pick up the Mariners (the red-hot Mariners, I should say) in Tampa Bay on Monday, so I decided to come early to check out the Generals, who now have a 16-7 record and are loaded with talent. I had to get up at 3:30 this morning to catch a 6 a.m. flight to Dallas (where I connected to Nashville, where I drove two hours to Jackson), so I’m fading fast. I’m thus going to keep this fairly brief, but I’ll have more in the coming days.
What was impressive tonight about Walker was that he didn’t have his best fastball, as he admitted afterward. That meant he had to rely heavily on his secondary stuff — he estimated he threw about an equal number of changeups and curves in his six-inning stint — and he still was able to hold the Smokies scoreless. He gave up six hits, walked one and hit a batter, but when he had to, he toughened up. And his last inning was his best, as he struck out the final two batters he faced with high heat.
With farm director Chris Gwynn watching from the stands, Walker fanned five total. I saw two fastballs at 96 (they listed the velocity of each pitch on the board), a few at 95, but most were in the 92 to 94 range, a few MPH below where he usually sits. But his off-speed pitches had the Smokies off balance and were quite effective. He got a couple of double-play balls early to get out of jams, and had a couple of strikeouts with runners on base that got him out of trouble as well.
The game was scoreless going into the bottom of the sixth, when Jackson scored all three of their runs to give Walker the victory. The big hit was a two-out, RBI double by Joe Dunigan, who is tied for the Southern League lead with six homers (tied with teammate Denny Almonte, who is hitting .358, second in the league). Walker is now 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA in four starts (to go with Danny Hultzen at 2-2, 2.08, James Paxton at 2-0, 3.09, and the increasingly impressive Andrew Carraway at 3-0, 2.63. In 22 innings, Walker has given up 16 hits, four earned runs, and six walks, while striking out 26. At age 19, you couldn’t ask for much more.
Here’s what Walker had to say after the game:
“I didn’t have my best fastball, I felt like, so I had to mix in all my pitches. I threw a lot of curveballs and changeups. Mixing that in really helped me. I got a lot of ground balls and a couple of double plays.”
PItching so well without his good fastball is “definitely a good sign. It just shows I have to trust my secondary pitches, too – my changeup and my curveball. And trust my defense behind me. They did a real good job tonight.
“I have a lot of things to work on, my fastball command, of course, and still trusting my secondary pitches. I felt today was a good opportunity for me to show it and work on it. I feel I made some big steps.”
Walker’s changeup is a key to his development, and it’s improving.
“I feel it’s definitely coming along really good. I still have a lot of work to do with it, but I feel confident I can throw it in 3-0, 3-1 counts. That’s good. I have to be confident I can throw it whenever I have to.”
Manager Jim Pankovits said, “Taijuan seems to get stronger as he goes along. I would hate to be hitting off him in the fifth or sixth inning with someone on base. He seems to have the ability to turn it up a notch, which he showed tonight.
“He kind of pitched himself into trouble up in the zone. He threw a lot of hittable pitches early. But as soon as he had to, he got the ball down and was able to throw his breaking ball for a strike. It makes his fastball that much better, even if it’s not good for him.”