By Jon Wells
Big things were expected of 22-year-old Taijuan Walker when he had a dominant spring training, but he got off to a poor start to the regular season. Failing to last more than four innings in four of his first eight starts, he found himself with a sky-high ERA of 7.47 in late May. But just when it seemed like a return trip to Tacoma was imminent, something clicked and Walker put together five consecutive strong outings, allowing just eight runs in 35 1/3 innings while winning four of the five starts. We caught up with the young right-hander during the Mariners’ series in San Francisco in June.
GRAND SALAMI: You pitched your first-ever game at San Francisco’s AT&T Park last night. What are your thoughts on that experience?
TAIJUAN WALKER: It’s a nice ballpark, the fans are unbelievable. The Giants are a really good team.
GS: Your last four starts have been incredible after a rough beginning to the season. What do you think has changed for you?
WALKER: It all started with the start in Toronto (May 24th), my mentality in that start was a bit different. I was being more aggressive with the fastball and getting ahead of the hitters. After that my confidence went up and I’ve been attacking hitters since and it’s been working well. Me and Z (M’s catcher Mike Zunino) have been in a really good groove lately.
GS: Was it frustrating for you to pitch poorly earlier in the season after having such a great spring training?
WALKER: I was definitely frustrated. I’d had a really good spring and then when the season began my first couple of games were really bad. I know I had everybody behind me, my teammates had my back and still believed in me, so I just had to bust my butt to get back to where I was in the spring.
GS: How has pitching coach Rick Waits helped you with your progression as a pitcher?
WALKER: He’s really great to work with. He cares a lot. Whatever I need, he’s always there for me, whether it be advice on mechanics or helping me look at video of my starts.
GS: How’s Lloyd McClendon been?
WALKER: He’s great too. He’s real tough because he expects a lot out of his players. When we’re not performing to our full capabilities or doing as well as he thinks we can he’s gonna get on us, and I like that a lot in a manager.
GS: So it’s one-on-one, he calls you into his office for a talk?
WALKER: Yeah, it’s one-on-one, face-to-face. He’s very direct. I had a stretch where I was pitching badly and he called me in and told me that I needed to step it up. So I did.
GS: How have the veteran pitchers on the staff helped you to be a better pitcher?
WALKER: Felix [Hernández] and I talk a lot. In April when I was struggling he told me to attack hitters and go right after them with my fastball. Just watching Felix and the way he goes out and attacks hitters helps me and all the other pitchers on our staff. Seeing his passion and how he handles situations with runners in scoring position or when he gives up a couple of runs have been a big help for me. I’ve talked a lot with J.A. Happ and have learned a lot from him, too.
GS: What are the main differences between facing hitters at Triple-A and facing hitters in the big leagues?
WALKER: They’re more consistent up here. They don’t miss a lot of pitches. They almost always hit the mistakes. You can get away with a lot more mistakes in Triple-A.
GS: How many different pitches do you throw?
WALKER: Four pitches. Fastball, curveball, changeup, and slider. My fastball is my best pitch and my changeup is the next most effective pitch for me, but right now all four pitches are working pretty well.
GS: Do you pay much attention to the velocity readings?
WALKER: Not really. But I can tell when my velocity is down because hitters start to get better swings on my fastball. When I get a lot of swings and misses on my fastball I know that I’ve got a good one that day.
GS: What do you like to do when you’re not playing?
WALKER: Just hang out, mostly. Watch movies, stuff like that.
GS: Did you have a favorite team, growing up in California?
WALKER: I liked the Angels, but I don’t like them anymore because they’re one of our biggest rivals. I wasn’t that big of a baseball fan growing up, I was more into basketball and football.
GS: Favorite basketball team?
WALKER: It’s always been the Lakers. I’m still a huge Lakers fan.
GS: You played basketball in high school. Why did you choose baseball over basketball as a profession?
WALKER: I felt like I had a better opportunity for a longer career with baseball. It was a family decision as well.