HOUSTON — Nothing like having one ace race around the clubhouse postgame in search of inducting the future one into the fold.
At least, that’s a storyline the Mariners would certainly like to see touted as Felix Hernandez, beer in-hand, headed back to the field Friday night to find fellow pitcher Taijuan Walker.
Arguably the most hyped Mariners mound prospect since Hernandez, Walker had just beaten the Houston Astros, 7-1, in his major league debut and was giving a televised interview live on MLB Network when the current ace struck.
Hernandez doused the barely-drinking-age Walker with his first of plenty of sudsy shampoo to come. Later, after his teammates had dragged him to the clubhouse showers for more, Walker reflected on what it meant to have finally arrived where he wants to be.
“I had a lot of fun,” Walker said. “I’m glad the first one’s out of the way. My family was there, so, I had a good time.”
His mother, Nellie Garcia, who had raised Walker and his siblings alone as a teenager, had flown in from upstate New York to be among the 13,869 at Minute Maid Park. And Walker’s new extended family, a nation of diehard, beaten-down Mariners supporters seeking any positive news they could find, had tuned in for this one with plenty of interest.
They saw Walker, who turned 21 just a few weeks ago, toss five solid innings against a terrible Astros squad. With a little luck, he might not have given up any hits or runs, but for some dropped balls the official scorer was generous to the home side on.
A Justin Smoak error also prolonged the third inning and enabled the Astros to open the scoring with an unearned run. But that would be all Houston managed and the Mariners quickly overcame the deficit, led by a career high four-hit night from Dustin Ackley.
An Ackley single off Astros starter Brad Peacock tied it 1-1 in the fourth and then rookie Abraham Almonte raced up the line and beat out an attempted double-play grounder to enable the go-ahead run to score.
Kyle Seager singled in the fifth to bring a third marker home and then Ackley added a two-run single of his own that frame to make it 5-1. Ackley then hit a triple to center in the eighth and eventually scored on Almonte’s first big-league hit.
Finally, in the ninth, with the bases full, Ackley hit another single to close out the scoring.
Along the way, Ackley also made arguably the finest catch of his fledgling outfield career, sprinting full on to deep right center and making a sliding snag of a Robbie Gorman blast to the warning track.
“I think everything for me in the outfield is sort of just learning on-the-fly,” Ackley said. “Just how to approach balls. I’ve never had a play like that where I just slid at the wall and had to avoid running into it. So, I think everything now for me is just learning different plays and different things.”
Walker had glanced back at the sprinting Ackley, fearful the ball might actually make it over the wall.
“When he caught it, I kind of jumped and gave a little fist-pump,” Walker said.
That would be it for Walker from there, the Mariners not wanting to push things beyond the 70 pitches already thrown by a hurler on an innings limit after a long Class AA and AAA season. This game was more about Walker getting a feel for the big leagues than dominating anybody for nine innings.
To that effect, he struck out Jason Castro twice and walked just one batter. The only hard hit of the two he allowed was a Jonathan Villar double that deflected off the glove on leaping left fielder Raul Ibanez.
Smoak’s error after that scored the run and kept the inning going and then a grounder off the glove of third baseman Seager — ruled a hit — brought Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis to the mound.
“Carl came out and just gave me a quick breather,” Walker said. “But really, right there, I just wanted to keep pounding the zone and making them put the ball in play. That’s what I did and we got the outs.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge was waiting for Walker in the dugout and offered him a “Nice job!” once that problematic third inning was done.
“I really liked the way he handled himself,” Wedge said. “It didn’t speed up on him. He kept his mind in the moment. The focus stayed with him. He did a nice job there.”
Wedge knows the franchise’s future won’t ultimately depend on what Walker, or anyone else manages here these final few weeks. But he’d rather get any kinks out now so the pitcher can be ready when wins and losses truly start to matter for his team again next April.
Walker admitted to first-inning jitters, but otherwise wasn’t too surprised by his initial foray.
“It’s just the same game pretty much,” he said. “If you execute your pitches, it’s all going to be the same.”