By Shannon Drayer
HOUSTON – There are always nerves when a highly touted pitching prospect makes his Major League debut.
Those who called him up are anxious to see him succeed in his first outing. The manager knows what the player is on paper but has no idea how he will respond under the bright lights. Teammates are interested to see his stuff. Family members sit on the edge of their seats and battle emotions as they see the kid they took to practice after practice with a big-league jersey on his back and everyone watching him.
Making his first big-league start, Taijuan Walker allowed two hits and zero earned runs over five innings. “It was a lot of fun,” he said afterward. (AP) | More photos
The one person who did not appear to be nervous at all Friday night was the guy on the mound, Taijuan Walker. Turns out he was, but just for a few moments.
“It was a lot of fun,” Walker said in the clubhouse after the Mariners beat the Astros 7-1 for Walker’s first big-league win. “I’m glad the first one is out of the way. The first hitter, I was really nervous, but after that I got more comfortable as the game went on.”
Walker – who threw 70 pitches in five innings while giving up no earned runs, two hits, and one walk with two strikeouts – wanted to soak in the moment. He took a few seconds behind the mound for himself before the first pitch and then returned to the dugout to watch the end of the game once his postgame work was done. In his interview with me on the field he seemed completely calm, appreciative of the moment but hardly overwhelmed – just as he was on the mound.
“I felt more comfortable as the innings went on,” he told me. “After each batter I felt real comfortable.”
Walker had expressed confidence in his newest pitch, the cutter, the day before and he went to it early against the Astros. We also saw him reach back and find 97 mph with the fastball at times. He had his weapons, and he had a plan for his first big-league start.
“I really wanted to go up there and attack them,” he said, “just be real aggressive, make them put the ball in play because they don’t know me and I don’t know them. So just going out there and trying to attack with my fastball, attack with my off-speed, not be too cute with them, just really go right after them.”
Walker tallied nine strikeouts in his final Triple-A start, 160 this season and 400 over his minor-league career. While some guys say they don’t care about the strikeouts, that it is more about the outs, it is easy to see that they mean something to Walker. He kept the ball from his first, a strikeout of Jason Castro in the second inning.
“That was awesome,” Walker said with a big smile. “I got the strikeout and all I could hear was my family over there cheering for me, just screaming loud.”
It was hard not to hear the Walker group – 41 strong and led by his mom, Nellie Garcia, who has been there every step of the way. She got the ball from her son’s first pitch, something Walker was proud to be able to give to her.
After the game Walker did his two Seattle interviews, spent some time with his family on the field and then did an interview with the MLB Network. This delayed his return to the clubhouse, where teammates were waiting to give him the customary celebratory beer shower. They were anxious for him to come in, asking where he was, giving reporters a hard time for holding him up. Then they looked up at the clubhouse televisions and there was the guy they were waiting for doing a national interview.
There were plenty of smiles in the clubhouse, smiles that got even bigger when on live TV, Walker was doused in Gatorade. I hear it was Felix Hernandez who got him. It didn’t end there. Walker got the beer shower when he finally returned to the clubhouse, with teammates running from the food room, the clubhouse and training room all to get him. Another experience that Walker called “fun”.
A great night for Walker and his family. He is expected to make two more starts before reaching his innings limit.