That’s Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker coming off the field together after batting practice for the U.S. team prior to the Futures Game, which will start here soon at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City (where it has cooled down into the 90s). Dylan Bundy, the Orioles’ phenom, is in front of them.
The two former Jackson Generals teammates, forever linked as two of the Mariners’ Big Three, had a good time re-connecting here. Remember, Hultzen flew the Jackson coop a couple of weeks ago when he was promoted to Tacoma.
“I kind of missed him a little bit,” Walker said with a grin.
He said Hultzen texted him a song the two apparently had a shared affection for, though he wouldn’t say what it was. They both confirmed, however, that it wasn’t “Call Me Maybe” — my guess. But Hultzen said it was “nearly that bad.”
I talked to Walker about his recent struggles, which have understandably alarmed many Mariners followers, but which he — and Jackson manager Jim Pankovits, here as a coach — both feel will ultimately benefit him. After breezing through the early part of the season in dominating fashion, Walker has given up 27 hits, 20 earned runs and issued 14 walks over 19 2/3 innings in his last five starts. That’s a 9.15 ERA. He has18 strikeouts over that time.
The best news is that there have been no arm issues, only a minor ankle “tweak,” in Pankovits’ words. The other good news is that Walker believes he has learned from his struggles.
(That’s Jackson manager Jim Pankovits watching the most accomplished batting-practice pitcher you’ll ever see — Hall of Famer George Brett, who is managing the U.S. team against the World in today’s Futures Game).
“I think it’s more mental,” he said. “It’s just kind of got in my head a little bit. Players go through bumps like this. It’s how you come out of it. You’re either going to bounce back, or you’re going to give up and keep going through the slump. I’m glad I went through that month. I learned a lot as a pitcher, and about myself. I’m really glad I got to go through that.
“You just start thinking too much. You start thinking about your mechanics and your delivery. It really gets to you. You’ve kind of got to take the game, and take what you need to work on, and just forget about it and move on to the next one.
“Physically, I feel fine. Everything feels the same. I just hit a bump, you know. The last game I threw, the last three innings were really good. Hopefully, I’m going to start building on that and get back on track.
“I’m sure all the greats went through it. And it’s going to happen, whether it’s here, low A, double a, triple a, and the big leagues. They all go through it. It’s just one of those things.”
Two problems Walker can pinpoint. One is that his secondary pitches — namely, his curve and changeup — still need to be honed.
“That’s what it’s been. I’ve been just a one-pitch pitcher. I want to use my fastball a lot. I also have to show my secondary pitches. I have to show my curveball, and if I don’t, the hitters in Double-A can hit the best fastball, no matter how hard it is. If I show I can throw it for strikes, it doesn’t have to be every time, but if I show it, that should help a lot. Every game I want to have either my curveball or changeup with my fastball. My last couple outings I didn’t feel I did, but my most recent outing, I felt it was all there. Hopefully, I can get back on track.
“You’ve got work on it, and keep going on it. You can’t give up on it. The curveball is a hard pitch. The changeup is a hard pitch, too. If you keep throwing it, eventually it’s going come, and it’s going to come natural. But you have to stay with it. Last year in Clinton, I wanted to give up on it (his curveball). I hated it. My pitching coach, Rich Dorman, told me, no, it will come. Just stay on it. And I did.
“Even if my curveball is not the best, I still have to throw it so down the road I’ll be comfortable with it. You have to throw curveballs in the big leagues in hitters counts. I want to make sure I’m comfortable with my curveball and my changeup, too.
Walker said he threw a slider as his secondary pitch in high school, but the Mariners won’t let him throw it yet.
“They wanted me to work on a curveball. Hopefully, I can get my slider back. I felt that was my second best pitch.”
The Mariners did something similar with Felix Hernandez, who was allowed to throw his slider again when he got to Triple-A.
“I’m not sure (why they won’t let him throw it),” he said. “It could be for my arm. I came out of high school 17 years old. It could be I’m too young to throw a slider. Whatever the reason was, it’s all right. I know eventually I’ll be able to get it back.”
The other thing Walker, still just 19 (he turns 20 on Aug. 13), now realizes is that he was getting ahead of himself, yearning too much for a promotion and dreaming about his path to the big leagues.
“You just have to take it day by day. That’s one of the things I realized when I was going through the bumps. You can’t think about the future. You’ve got to take it day by day, and be in the moment. If you’re not in the moment, and on the mound thinking about the future, it’s going to mess you up that outing. You have to take it one outing at a time and go day by day.
“Going to big league camp and everything was a great experience, and I just wanted to get there so bad. I was thinking way too far ahead instead of taking a step back and relaxing and going day by day. I talked to Chris Gwynn (Mariners farm director) a little bit. He said to go out and relax and have fun. Right now, where I’m at, is my big leagues. I’ve got to treat it like it is my big leagues.
Here’s what Pankovits said about Walker’s struggles:
“I see a lot of positives, believe it or not. He has had a little bit of an up and down season. I’ve really liked how lately he’s handled the adversity. He’s shown his competitive side. That’s something I hadn’t seen up until that point, and I think it’s great. I think on the flip side of that, you have someone who has a lot of success in the minor leagues, then they get to the big leagues and they struggle. I would rather have a prospect like that have to go through those ups and down and adversity in the minor leagues before they reach the big leagues. I think he’ll benefit from it, and he’s done everything we could ask.
Health-wise, “He’s had a couple of bumps. He had little tweak in his ankle. Nothing arm wise. Certainly, the minor-league season is grueling, especially for our starting pitchers, it’s been a challenge, because we haven’t had a lot of rain this year. Typically, you have a lot of rainouts that give you the extra days in between starts from time to time, the days off. We haven’t had a lot of that, so they’ve been called upon to be on the bump every fifth day, and it’s been certainly a challenge for them.
“I just think it’s all going to be about command with him, being able to throw his fastball down in the zone, consistently, to set up his secondary pitches. He’s a power pitcher. He can get away, or has probably been able to get away, with throwing his fastball behind in the count by a lot of hitters. But as he moves up the ladder, that’s not always going to be the case.”