It will take more than one great start for RHP Taijaun Walker to erase the stats he compiled during a terrible May.
A terrible start to the season, really. The 22-year-old carried ugly totals into Friday night. He hadn’t won in more than a month. The ERA was more than seven. The high expectations borne of a standout spring that won him a spot in the rotation — mostly gone.
Then he pitched eight masterful, shutout innings — looking every bit the promising top prospect — and allowed two hits in the Mariners’ 2-1 win over the Cleveland Indians (22-26) at Safeco Field.
Walker worked ahead. He used his best pitch — a fastball that routinely reached the high 90s — with impressive accuracy, while throwing 76 of 102 pitches for strikes. He tied a career high with eight strikeouts, walked none and improved to 2-5 as his ERA dropped from 7.33 to 6.18.
“I’ve said all along: With young starters there is going to be two starts (out of four) that you’re not going to like. They’re going to look real bad,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “Then there is going to be one where you’re shaking your head. And then there is going to be one where he’s gonna show you a glimpse of the future. And tonight was one of those starts when he showed you a glimpse of the future.”
It was the 18th start of Walker’s big-league career. It was one of his best. He rarely shook off C Mike Zunino and retired the final 10 batters he faced.
“I feel like I was back in spring form,” he said.
Allow Cleveland manager Terry Francona to explain how well Walker pitched:
“There is so much life to that fastball,” he said. “It was just a dominant fastball. He probably threw it four out of five pitches, but it was beating us for the most part.”
It came on a day the Mariners (24-24) needed a morale boost after LHP James Paxton was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained tendon on the middle finger of his throwing hand.
Runs were hard to come by against Indians starter Trevor Bauer (4-2), who took the loss despite allowing two runs and striking out ten over seven innings. The diminutive, hard-throwing righthander kept it scoreless until the sixth inning, when Nelson Cruz’s one-out single was followed by OF Seth Smith’s homer, his fifth, to make it 2-0.
“It’s definitely always better to score first,” Smith said.
Smith batted cleanup for the first time this season because 2B Robinson Cano was out with with an ear infection. Cruz, who went 2-for-4, batted third.
“I told him during batting practice he was my secret weapon today,” McClendon joked. “They weren’t going to know what to think when they didn’t see Cruz there. He didn’t disappoint.”
The Mariners clung to the lead until closer Fernando Rodney entered in the ninth. There was no discussion about letting Walker try for his first complete game.
“When skip said that’s enough, that’s enough,” Walker said. “I don’t think there’s any give to him unless I’m Felix (Hernandez). He’s probably the only one that can get away with that.”
Back to Rodney.
The 38-year-old right-hander fanned Michael Bourn, who twirled and fell to the ground on a swinging third strike, then got pinch-hitter Mike Aviles to ground out weakly. It appeared he might work a 1-2-3 ninth inning.
We all should know better.
Rodney walked Jason Kipnis and fell behind to pinch-hitter Ryan Raburn. He ripped a triple to right center that barely sailed over the glove of Cruz to make it 2-1.
After a visit to the mound from McClendon, Rodney, as he often does, righted himself and got Michael Brantley to fly out .
Afterward, McClendon defended his decision to lift Walker. Rodney picked up his 14th save in 16 chances but his ERA jumped to 7.08.
“If somebody told me that I can get you a closer and he’s going to be here for the next two years and he’s going to be 62 out of (67), I don’t think anybody in this room would say don’t go get that guy,” McClendon said, referring to Rodney’s stats since joining the Mariners.
“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. And I’ve been known to stand up for my players so I’m standing up for my closer.
“He’s pretty damn good.”
Willie Bloomquist started in Cano’s place and batted eighth. McClendon said Cano is improving and could return to the lineup Saturday. “They thought it was an ear infection that was really bringing him down,” McClendon said. “His weight was steady today. No IVs. He still had some chills. They gave him some type of medicine. They believe that he should be ready to go tomorrow. That’s my hope.”