Arriving at Cheney Stadium, there were blue skies above. We knew what the forecast was, though, and could see the clouds drifting in our direction. The reports from Olympia -- where the system had just hit -- were daunting. The anticipation only grew, though. Even as the grounds crew got the word to unravel the tarp and cover the diamond and players scattered from their warm-ups for cover, not a soul left the stands. Sure, they migrated to higher ground under the facility's small overhang. Some umbrellas popped open, too. But they all knew the reward far outweighed the risk.
Despite all that, the pre-game festivities and the contest itself started on time Tuesday night. While there were periods of drizzles and even a couple heavy showers, there was never a delay in the game action -- much to the chagrin of the baffled Fresno batters. Once Taijuan Walker scaled the mound in Tacoma for his first Triple-A start, he owned it and nothing was going to stop him.
In Walker's six innings of work, he allowed only three hits and a couple of walks -- one I believe to be the product of the hilariously small strike zone we saw -- and struck out four.
Of those three hits, only Chris Dominguez's single to left field in the fifth inning was hit particularly hard. There was a come-backer off the bat of Kensuke Tanaka in the first that barely snuck between Walker’s legs, but would have been an easy out if hit anywhere else on the infield. Brett Pill had the other hit on the evening.
All night, the weak contact induced off Walker's offerings lead to lazy fly balls when he threw the cutter and grounders when he showed the four-seamer. He did miss some bats with those pitches, but his primary weapon to avoid contact was his curve.
Not only were Fresno hitters not making contact on the pitch that clocked between 69-74 mph, they rarely removed the bat from their shoulders. Perhaps the most impressive was the second one he threw. That one came in at 74 and looked like it was going to stay up and inside. It absolutely froze the batter -- RF Roger Kieschnick -- as it dove down and back over the plate for a called third strike to end the second inning.
The one nit-pick I'd have on the night was Walker's changeup. This pitch is clearly the one that will need the most work from the 20-year-old, and will play a role in determining his time table to the big leagues. By my count, he threw about eight of them that sat in the mid-80's. He didn't appear to have much confidence in them as he threw them infrequently. There were a couple really long stretches that spanned over an inning without seeing him offer the change.
He can probably get away with his other pitches on many nights -- especially at this level -- but that change has a long ways to go if it is to be a serious fourth weapon in the majors.
What Really Impressed
Of his 87 pitches, 56 were strikes. Amongst the 23 batters he faced, 16 of them received first pitch strikes.
Walker's command of the fastball was particularly good. When he missed, it was down in the zone or even in the dirt. He didn't leave many of those pitches up to be hit hard.
He looked poised and mature beyond his years on the mound. When seemingly getting squeezed -- I'd say there were five pitches on the corners that could have been called strikes -- Walker never looked rattled. His body language was comfortable and he went right back to work despite the howls around the stadium.
If Walker continues to improve at the pace he has this season, I believe we are looking at a future front-line starter in the major leagues. He’ll hit his innings limit before the opportunity arises to dip his toes in the big-league waters, so we’re still looking at a 2014 ETA. His changeup needs some fine-tuning and his overall command will have to be better at the next level, but this is a guy you should absolutely be excited about in the coming years.