M’s prospect sparks big dreams one damp night

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TACOMA – It was just one game on one damp night, witnessed by a tiny crowd of 2,673. Years of baseball wisdom warn you – beg you – not to read too much into it.

Yet by the time Taijuan Walker had finished his work on Tuesday at Cheney Stadium, restraint was nearly impossible.

Not when the 20-year-old arrived for his first Tacoma start amidst a whirlwind of hype, and somehow managed to exceed it. Not when he handled older, more experienced Class AAA hitters with poise and polish – not to mention an explosive 97-mph fastball and a sharp, darting curve ball.

Rainiers manager John Stearns tried to uphold baseball protocol after Walker had breezed through six scoreless innings in Tacoma’s 1-0 victory.

“Let’s not put too much pressure on him,’’ Stearns warned – directly after he had gushed, “To think he’s here doing this at age 20, at this level; you can really fantasize about what’s going to happen in the future with him.”

It was a night for gushing. It was a night for fantasizing about the future. As dismal as the Mariners’ present continues to be, what’s wrong with a little dreaming?

Even Walker, maybe the most grounded person at Cheney, acknowledged afterward that leaving Class AA Jackson for Tacoma, with its geographic proximity to Seattle, makes it hard to avoid thinking how close he is to making the final step of his meteoric rise.

“It’s right there, and it’s very exciting,’’ Walker said. “But at the same time, you have to take it one day at a time and one start at a time. I’ve been doing that a lot. I know last year, I kind of got ahead of myself and I think that kind of hurt me.”

Statistics only partly tell the story of the game. What they don’t convey are Walker’s presence, his command, and his mastery.

Oh, the statistics were great: just three hits allowed, all singles. Four strikeouts and two walks. Out of 87 pitches, 56 were strikes. No base runner advanced beyond second base, and only one got that far.

But beyond that, Walker just had the aura of a rising talent, one who belonged completely in the rarified air of the Pacific Coast League. But not necessarily for long.

Every instinct of the Mariners is to nurse Walker along slowly. He’s 20 years old, for crying out loud, instantly becoming the youngest player in the PCL, and the youngest starter to debut for the Rainiers since 19-year-old Felix Hernandez on April 8, 2005.

Felix’s numbers that night – also against Fresno -- eerily mirror Walker’s: No earned runs in six innings, with five hits allowed, one walk and four strikeouts.

Comparing a young Mariners’ prospect to Felix? Nothing like a little more pressure. But the way Walker pitched on Tuesday was like he was saying, “Bring it on.”

Said Stearns, “Mentally, he was in command of the whole show tonight. That’s the part you would think, being age 20, he’d be a little behind in the mental aspects.”

Walker struck out the first Fresno batter, Gary Brown, on three pitches, and hit 95 mph on his 87th and final pitch of the night. Abraham Almonte got the Rainiers the only run they’d need with a leadoff homer in the fifth.

“I was little nervous,’’ Walker said. “But I think that’s expected. But after that first inning and even after that first hitter, I just got into a little groove.”

Rainiers catcher Jason Jaramillo, who is 30 years old and has caught 119 games in the majors with the Pirates, said Walker reminded him of other pitching prodigies he has handled, like Cole Hamels during a stint in the Phillies’ organization.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be around a lot of special pitchers, but tonight you got to see one of the really good ones,’’ he said. “He’s got the composure, he’s got the stuff, he’s got the talent; he’s really blessed. Just being around him a couple of days now, he’s special.’’

If he keeps pitching like he did in this one, the temptation to bring Walker north will be great. That’s a story that will unfold in due time. For now, this is about a pitcher who was not overwhelmed by the moment, who had the stuff and the poise to ratchet up the hype even more.

“He’s always struggled with his curve,” Stearns mused. “It’s either up or in the dirt. Tonight, it was sharp. He had about 18 inches of vertical drop, and he was throwing it down in the zone for strikes. Guys were biting on it. It was very impressive. A very impressive approach and mentality for a 20-year-old at Triple-A.”

Ah, heck, let’s not stop there, John.

“It was really one of the most incredible, really impressive performances, and showed the maturity of him; his baseball IQ maturity at a young age was just tremendous.”

Rest assured that struggles in Class AAA will ensue. Even transcendent talents like Walker don’t proceed unscathed – at least not very often. The sensible thing would be to take a deep breath and realize that no one up here had yet seen Walker, and that he was riding on adrenalin. What you saw might not always be what you get, because baseball can be a cruel and inexplicable game.

But for one game, on one damp night, what you saw sure liked like the first glimpse of greatness.

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