Taijuan Walker prepared to handle emotions of Mariners’ home opener

Apr 8, 2016, 9:44 AM | Updated: 10:15 am
Taijuan Walker will throw a bullpen session this weekend to gauge his readiness to start next Thurs...
Taijuan Walker will throw a bullpen session this weekend to gauge his readiness to start next Thursday. (AP)
(AP)

Taijuan Walker is the picture of calm and relaxed right up until he is not.

In interviews, the conversation always starts out easy. His pace is on the fast side, but he’s focused. As excitement builds for a story or subject he is relaying, however, the pace picks up and there is a stumble or two. These are just moments in the interviews, shorts bursts that he is able to reel in.

He’s had to learn to do the same on the mound. A game on Jackie Robinson Day last year in front of over 51,000 fans at Dodger Stadium – 80-100 of which were family and friends, by his count – was an eye-opener for Walker.

“It was one of those games that was real special for me and I let my emotions get to me and got a little over-excited, over-amped,” he said of the April 15 start in which he allowed five runs in four innings. “I really wanted to do really, really good. It kind of threw me off my game.”

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Walker felt the emotions creep into a number of his starts last year, including a complete-game one-hitter against Minnesota on July 31.

“That was a big game for me. Going deep into the game like that, I had only done one other time. I really had to control my emotions in the eighth and ninth inning and not try to overthrow just to get it over with.”

Getting to take the field on opening night at a sold-out Safeco Field could stir up some of the same emotions, but Walker is now better equipped to handle them. After his struggles last year, he sought out the Mariners’ mental-skills coach, Michael Gerson, for help.

“I started out rough last year so I knew I needed to figure something out,” Walker said in an interview for the Mariners pregame show, which begins at 6 on 710 ESPN Seattle.

“I was getting all my work done, I felt really good and was making pitches but still wasn’t where I wanted to be and was getting hit, so I stated doing the mental side, started to do visualization. I didn’t realize how many other players were into the mental side. Just hearing about Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant and all these great athletes who are real big on the mental side of the game and I thought (I would give it) a try, and it really helped me out.”

In addition to visualization, Walker also keeps a journal in which he documents each start and everything from the work that he did to what he ate that day leading up to it.

“I just kept everything so I am not lost when I get in trouble again, so I have something to go back to,” he said.

Walker now approaches the mental side of the game the same way he approaches his pitches. It’s about keeping both sides of the game sharp and improving them where he can. He is interested in what others do and has had a number of conversations with former Mariner Jamie Moyer.

“Last year, I talked to him when he came in. Me and Mike Montgomery and Jamie, we sat for two and a half hours and everything he said was nothing but good information. Tips on how to pitch, how to control emotions, everything. I was able to take all of that in.”

That Walker would seek out the soft-tossing lefty for advice points to his maturity and desire to improve. For all of the physical talent he has been bestowed with, he takes nothing for granted. He doesn’t have the appearance of someone waiting for his breakout season to happen. He appears to be chasing it down.

Opening night could be a test to see if he can push the emotions aside on a big stage.

He will, however, take a moment to enjoy it.

“Last year, just sitting on the first-base line while everyone was getting introduced, it gives me goosebumps,” he said of opening day. “But I got to learn from (the start on Jackie Robinson Day) and now I know to take this one in for a second and get focused.”

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