61-73: Taijuan Walker meets Astros, emerges a Mariner

babyface - Bob Levey

Taijuan Walker lasts 5 innings, acquiring his first MLB win as the Mariners defeat the Astros 7-1.

So here we are. The Mariners are 61-73, it's August 30th in another losing season, and the first of the Big Three has just made their major league debut in a pretty stellar outing. Many thought it would be James Paxton, the lefty with the smaller bag but the deeper bite. Nope. Others expected Hultzen, the ready-made #2 starter, drafted second in 2011. Big league stuff and big league makeup. Nope. Just about nobody expected a fourth guy to jump ahead in the queue and beat them all, but then again, he's currently filling out an oversized Hector Noesi suit in the Mariner's bullpen, so there you go.

No. Instead, it was Taijuan Walker, the 21 year old thrower with leopard print hair and hand tattoos who has excited Mariners fans not only for his currently undiscovered ceiling, but also for a boisterous personality that would look not entirely different than another once-heavily heralded prospect on the team who is now one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

I don't want to make any actual Felix comparisons here, so I'll leave it at that: if Walker sticks around, the marketing department is going to have a lot of their work done for them. Just think of the commercials.

But let's look at baseball, the only thing that should really matter here. How did he do today?

IP H R ER BB K HR ERA FIP
5.0 2 1 0 1 2 0 0.00 2.83

He also hit 96. Yeah, so not bad. Walker came in in the bottom of the first (I seriously forgot about this all day, fully realizing the Mariners were in Houston, and that's just how baseball works. But when the game started and Brad Miller was in the batter's box, I cussed out my TV and realized I would have to wait ten more minutes. Injustice, I tell you.) to a...well...sparse Houston crowd of around 13,000. He had some friends and family flown out at the game, who promptly filled out their own King's Court to chant K's at him, but other than that, it was empty seats, echoes, and a rooster. Seriously. Welcome to major league baseball.

He took the mound for a moment, ready to go. He later said he wanted to get the first batter out so bad that he almost started his delivery earlier than he was supposed to. Realizing he would never get the chance to experience this again, he stepped back off, gazed at the green upturned seats like they were hiding the setting sun, took a deep breath, and re-took the mound. His first pitch was a 92 mph fastball at Astro's batter Robbie Grossman's ankles. The second pitch was the exact same thing. His hands looked like they were shaking.

Taking a moment to calm down, he reached back and dialed it to 91 for a high strike that just barely dipped its toes in the zone, if at all. He tossed this pitch a lot during the game, and it threw me off just about every time. I don't know if it is his high release point, or the fact that he's really tall, but every one looked like a ball to me. He may have gotten away with a few, but gameday had most as strikes. Hopefully that won't cause him to run into trouble when hitters start to realize where he's throwing, but he's 21 years old for crying out loud, and his command is going to get better.

Walker got Grossman to ground out, and promptly escaped the inning 1-2-3 with three groundouts, including a pretty great diving stop by Franklin to get Altuve. Then Walker came up in the second and did it again, getting Castro to strike out, Matt Dominguez to pop up, and Brett Wallace to luckily find Raul Ibanez's glove. And then before you knew it, he was two outs into the third. Eight up, eight down. The Astros may be an awful team, but they are all professional baseball players. And Taijuan Walker, in his major league debut, retired eight in a row before giving up a "hit."

I call it a "hit" because Jonathan Villar's line drive to Raul was mistimed so poorly that it absolutely could have been caught by just about anyone else on the Mariners staff (I can say this now with Morse in Baltimore!). But alas, so goes the game of baseball. Moments later, Robbie Grossman reached on a rare botched catch error from Justin Smoak, scoring Villar from second. L.J. Hoes then did the next bit of damage, sending a grounder that was also misplayed quite a bit after Kyle Seager deflected it, and before you knew it, Taijuan Walker was in his first real Major League jam. But he calmed down and got Altuve to line out to new outfielder Abraham Almonte for the final out of the inning. They would be the only two hits Walker gave up in the entire game.

So think about this for a minute. He's on a heavily regulated pitch count, obviously. But the only two hits of the game came on plays that were absolutely not his fault. I hesitate to give him a pretend no hitter award, because baseball works both ways on things like this, but that's pretty damn impressive for a 21 year old kid who was probably eating microwavable burritos in an apartment with Brandon Maurer exactly one year ago today.

And I don't want to compare his line to Felix's, although many have pointed out their similarities (and I'm going to do this later anyway). All I want to say is that regardless of the process and result, the Taijuan Walker era has officially just started. It may last ten years, it may last three starts. I mean, Jack tried to unload him to the Diamondbacks last winter in the failed Justin Upton trade.

Now without such an attractive disgruntled hole-filler on the trading bloc this winter, it seems more likely that Walker will be wearing an M's uniform for a while longer. I sure hope so. It's honestly been a long time since I've been this excited about a baseball game. As irrational as it is, that feeling alone--and what he did in Houston today--makes me feel even more attached to the guy than I did watching iPhone videos of him pitching in the PCL, but baseball isn't always about rationality, so just stop disagreeing and look at this wonderful .GIF of Walker's first career strikeout of Jason Castro, an All-Star hitting .279 with 18 home runs. This was no AAAA hitter. This was that 95 mph high heater I was talking about earlier. Familiarize yourself with this pitch. Because if all this works out, we might be able to watch this moment again, and again, and again, but with different hitters in different ballparks in hopefully different years.

Walkerk

(.gifs courtesy our own @colinokeefe)

---

In non Taijuan Walker news, Abraham Almonte also made his major league debut today. Because he came over in the Shawn Kelley trade, and because I honestly don't spend nearly as much time looking into the minor league system as I should, I knew little to nothing about Almonte until 5:15 this afternoon.

After the ROOT Sports camera finally left Walker nervously pacing a hole into the ground, they centered in on Almonte, settling into the Mariners' dugout. Mike Blowers noted that he's like 5'9" and suddenly I had a new favorite Mariner. 5'9"!!! I'm 5'8"!!! And his name is ABRAHAM. This is either the most beautifully designed modern sports myth waiting to happen, or the second coming of Munenori Kawasaki, squeezed down into a stocky frame with legs even faster than Brad Millers'. That might be exaggerating, because maybe he's a total jerk. But man, if he can live up to this image that I've just given him (and I'm obviously aware of that), and replicate some of his minor league success (.314/.403/.491), this guy is going to be great. He's also not named Michael Morse.

Almonte had 2 RBI's and earned his first hit in the eighth, sending Dustin Ackley home because he was standing on third base. Yes, Dustin Ackley was standing on third base. More on this in a minute. Almonte's first RBI came off a routine double play that he beat by about two steps, surprising 12,999 fans, one major league pitcher, and a rooster.

There was a lot of good, productive baseball played today. The Mariners produced runs in the fourth, fifth, eighth, and ninth innings. Justin Smoak walked three times, making it appear as if he went .500 with one hit and one groundout otherwise. Brad Miller was 2-5. Michael Saunders was mercifully released from the bench and made the most of it, singling in the ninth inning. But as much as today was a team win-- and as much as it was Taijuan Walker's day, there was a Dustin Ackley thing that happened. And boy, was it a thing.

I'm actually kind of mad about it. Can anyone else tell me what on earth is happening with Dustin Ackley? Beat reporters are tweeting that he looks more relaxed at the plate, that he isn't tensing up as much. He now doesn't want to touch the length of his beard. Whatever the hell he's doing is working: he's hitting .364 since the All-Star break. You know what he did today? He went 4-5 with a triple. He had 4 RBIs.

It makes no sense, and if anything, it's just more proof that baseball can be the most merciless and cruel of sports. If Ackley's success has come from just waking up and relaxing, or moving his left pinky finger a little bit--and that's the difference between being a rock in a baseball uniform and a team's best hitter? That's mean. That's stupid.

But whatever--it's working, and Dustin Ackley is looking like the guy he was supposed to be when he came through the minors and had many fans as excited as we have been about Walker today. He also made this stupid catch in the bottom of the fifth inning that looks kind of neat at first, but gets better and better each time you watch it.

Ackleycatch20

Look how far back he starts from where the ball is eventually caught. Look how he actually timed a slide, and bent his legs under his knee so as not to Franklin Guiterrez himself. Look how he turns his body ever-so-slightly away from the direction he was running and toward the ball so as to control it's capture. Look how he actually looks like a centerfielder.

I don't know who this new robot Dustin Ackley is, but I like him. Usually when they replace people with flawless robots in the movies, it's bad because you lose that person's memories, or their friendship, or their spirit. But I mean, new robot Dustin Ackley will still stare off into space as much as the old human Dustin Ackley. He will still have the same empty, soulless look in his eyes every time he stands in the batters' box between pitches. Really, what's the difference?

---

So now I realize that I've talked about all of this without mentioning the score of the game, and if anything, that should tell you what kind of a game this was. Which is great. Jeff's post from Felix's first start ay back in 2005 said the same thing:

That Felix got through five innings on an 80-pitch limit in his Major League debut is just remarkable. I don't think there's really any negative that you can take out of his performance - the intermittent control problems were a little annoying, but it's not like we didn't know about them, and the Tigers didn't exactly make him pay when he came back over the plate. A-.

As for the rest of the game...who cares? Today belongs to Felix, and so does this recap.

Change a few nouns in there and we are talking about the same game, and the same sentiment.

Welcome to Seattle, Fresh Prince.

Oh, and it was 7-1.

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