GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Danny Hultzen was just a kid when the guy in the batter’s box won an American League Most Valuable Player Award.
And not long ago, the sight of Jason Giambi looking to do damage with his bat would have left Hultzen wobbly in the knees. But not this time, Hultzen and fellow Mariners prospect Taijuan Walker got an up-close look at a guy they watched terrorize pitchers like them on television back.
Now the 42-year-old Giambi, clinging to what’s left of his baseball career as a nonroster invite for the Cleveland Indians, was the one who had every reason to be nervous Wednesday as he stepped to the plate in the first inning. Hultzen wasted no time spotting a pair of mid-90s fastballs on the outside corner before Giambi swung through pitch No. 3 for a rapid punch out.
“We had a saying in college,” Hultzen said. “The only hitter you actually face is the strike zone. It shouldn’t matter who is in there.”
Easier said than done. In fact, Hultzen, 23, and Walker, 20, both admitted they would have stargazed had they faced Giambi this time last year, when they were wide-eyed at each new big league moment.
But times are changing. Hultzen and Walker are the game’s next wave, climbing the ladder at the expense of those who can’t cut it. The big part of their next step will be shedding memories of guys they used to idolize and shredding them if they get in the way.
“Guys like that, who you’d see on TV and watch growing up and all of a sudden you’re playing against them, that kind of blew my mind for a bit,” Hultzen said. “But just going through that and facing more guys, that kind of feeling just disappears.”
Walker had similar feelings in making his Cactus League debut last March, though that had changed by the time he faced Giambi in the third inning. Giambi made contact, sending a hard grounder to the right side that second baseman Dustin Ackley made a nice play to his right on before throwing to first for the out.
“I tried not to think about it too much,” Walker, who wasn’t yet born when Giambi was drafted by Oakland in 1992, said of facing the five-time All-Star. “Just seeing him in the box was pretty awesome. I watched him growing up and stuff. But I just tried to go out there and pound the strike zone.”
Both pitchers pounded it to the point where the hapless-looking Indians had just one hit off the duo through four innings of an eventual 5-1 win by the Mariners.
Walker used a fastball that touched the upper-90s at times to retire seven of the eight batters he faced. He walked the lone base runner he allowed, while striking out two.Hultzen had some first-inning trouble with guys not named Giambi and struggled to find the strike zone. But after two walks and a single loaded the bases with two out, Hultzen fanned Ben Francisco.
Hultzen then gathered himself between innings, stopped trying to throw the ball harder than he needed to. He got the side out in order in the second with two more strikeouts.
That type of in-game adjustment is another thing Hultzen said he wouldn’t have made this time last year.
“I honestly don’t think so,” he said. “That’s something that comes along with maturity and experience and just going through something like that.
“A year ago I probably would have even tried harder to just get it (the pitch) there instead of just relaxing and calming down.”
In the end, that adjustment might have carried more weight with manager Eric Wedge than Hultzen’s four strikeouts over two innings. Wedge doesn’t care much for spring stats, but is keeping an eye on how Hultzen and Walker “handle themselves” here before determining how close they are to doing this big-league thing for real.
Making adjustments on the fly is part of maturing as a pitcher. So is blowing away a forty-something, five-time All-Star who might not catch up to fastballs anymore.
“I think I’ve gotten used to it,” Hultzen said of famous faces.
In other words, the kids are coming. And anyone not ready to handle them had best get out of the way.