Mike Zunino homered, Robinson Cano doubled home another run, and Taijuan Walker threw six shutout innings in Seattle's 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs. After Fernando Rodney worked a scoreless seventh, Tyler Olson and Carson Smith combined to shut down the Cubbies in the eighth. Chicago finally got on the board in the ninth, and had the go-ahead run on first with one out before Dominic Leone stopped the bleeding, inducing a flyout and a strikeout to end the game.
Tonight was all about Walker though. The tall right-hander dominated the Cubs, pairing newfound command with a plus-plus fastball and an effective combination of secondary offerings. Walker yielded just two hits, striking out six, walking one, and allowing only a few hard hit balls. He located his fastball well all night long, moving the pitch around both sides of the plate. He also had had plenty of success getting batters to chase high heat out of the zone when he was ahead in the count. He didn't throw his slider, but the cutter was a very effective weapon. It essentially served as his change-of-pace off the fastball, and he threw a number of backdoor cutters on the black to steal strike one against lefties.
The curve remains a work in progress: it's not a sharp offering, but he maintains his arm speed well and with the velocity difference, the pitch can certainly screw up a hitter's timing. Case in point:
On the night, Walker was about as dominant as you can expect a pitcher to be. He threw hard. He located his offspeed pitches well. He disrupted timing and had the Cubs pounding the ball into the ground. He threw fifty-six strikes in eighty-one pitches. Even his walk came in an eight pitch at-bat and ball four was pretty close. This isn't the first time we've seen Taijuan look really good, but it might have been his most complete outing. All four pitches were working, he consistently hit Zunino's glove, and the Cubs had no answers.
The usual caveats to a good spring game still apply, of course. This is just one start, and he wasn't facing Chicago's best lineup. Kris Bryant didn't play and I don't think Anthony Rizzo was even in uniform. Walker was great, but it's easier to look great against a mediocre team than a good one. A better lineup might have taken some of the sheen off of tonight. It's important to remember that Walker is not a finished product: the curve could use some more snap and he's occasionally guilty of overthrowing his fastball. An out-getting work in progress is still a work in progress, and there will be bumps in his developmental journey.
Still, Walker has to be a lock for the rotation at this point. He was probably already penciled into the rotation, and nothing about tonight's performance could make Lloyd lean a different direction. It's tough luck for Roenis Elias, but Walker has earned his opportunity. Be excited. Be Michael Pineda-level excited.
To the shooting gallery:
- It's not a bad thing that Nelson Cruz can play a little outfield. Skeptical Mariners fans may worry that the promised occasional start may soon morph into a more regular role, a la Raul Ibanez, but the M's should have enough big league depth to avoid that situation. Cruz got another start in right field tonight and while he didn't see much action, he did have to track back to catch a deep line drive in the second inning. It was the typical Cruz-in-the-outfield experience: he demonstrated his competence by making the play, although he moved slowly and never looked steady until the ball was in his glove. May his appearances out there remain infrequent.
- Brad Miller looked uncomfortable at the plate tonight. His front foot drifted towards first, his shoulder was flying open, and his entire body fell away from the plate during swings. He kind of does those things naturally but it looked more pronounced tonight than usual. I don't know why pitchers ever throw him strikes on the inner half of the plate.
- One of the best parts of watching Robinson Cano is seeing his off-the-charts baseball instincts in action. With a runner on first in the third inning, Cubs backstop Miguel Montero dropped a very catchable fastball. The ball dribbled no more than a few feet to Montero's right, but almost instantly, Cano looked back and furiously motioned for Austin Jackson to take second. Credit to Jackson for a great jump and to Cano for reading the situation quickly.
- As mentioned above, Leone, Smith, and Olson all had the chance to work tonight. Leone produced the notable line, allowing two runs on three hits, although I was more pleased to see him sitting mid-90's with his fastball while throwing strikes than I was worried about what happened after contact. I can't really get myself worked up over whether Smith or Leone wins the final right-handed relief job out of spring training -- both will spend most of the summer in Seattle anyway -- but it's fair to say that Leone is in trouble if spring training numbers factor into the decision. He's allowed thirteen hits and ten runs in less than five innings of work.
The M's are back in action tomorrow, when they'll head to Maryvale to take on the Brewers. The game starts at 1:05 and will be broadcast on ROOT. Roenis Elias gets the ball for Seattle.