In his much-anticipated season debut, Taijuan Walker showed the jitters and inconsistency expected of a 21-year-old. But in a 10-4 Mariners victory over Houston Monday that pushed Seattle to a season-high seven games over .500, he also showed the unbridled talent that has so many in the organization excited.
The rookie got off to a rough start, throwing two first-pitch strikes to the first eight batters he faced, and it cost him. After a one-out single by Alex Presley, George Springer drove a 2-0 fastball 445 feet over the wall in left for a 2-0 lead.
In the second inning, Marwin Gonzalez also hit out a 2-0 fastball, edging the Astros in front 3-2. In the top half, Mike Zunino hit a tying 2-run homer.
But Walker settled down. He breezed through the third and fourth, allowing only a single in each. In the fifth, Walker struck out L.J. Hoes on a high fastball then hit Jose Altuve. He ended the inning by striking out Presley and Springer with off-speed pitches.
Walker (1-0, 4.50 ERA) pitched six innings, gave up three runs on five hits and two walks and struck out six. He threw 94 pitches and looked better with each inning. He also held hitless the hot-hitting Altuve, the Astros’ second baseman who entered with a league-leading .348 average.
It didn’t hurt that Walker’s teammates brought out the boomsticks. They did it against Collin McHugh, who in April tossed 6.2 innings scoreless innings in which he allowed three hits and struck out 12. McHugh (4-7, 3.22 ERA) came in allowing a .187 opponent batting average.
But Seattle (45-38) made McHugh throw strikes and it led to a season-high four home runs with Zunino, Michael Saunders, Brad Miller and Robinson Cano going deep.
Saunders’ homer carried the most weight. In the fourth inning, Saunders put Seattle ahead to stay with a two-run blast into the upper deck in right field. Two batters later, Miller roped a hanging change-up down the right-field line to give the M’s a 5-3 lead.
With Walker putting up zeroes, the Mariners offense continued to add.
Seattle went to work on the Houston bullpen. Endy Chavez and James Jones reached base to begin the inning, and Cano followed with an opposite-field home run, his sixth and second in two games, for an 8-3 advantage.
In addition to the long ball, the M’s showed small-ball prowess with rookie Jones going 4-for-5 with four singles and three stolen bases.
In the ninth, the Mariners tacked on two more runs with an RBI single from Logan Morrison and an RBI groundout by Zunino.
The large lead meant manager Lloyd McClendon could stick with reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, who went three innings for the third time this season to receive his first save since July 28.
The 45-38 mark is the best since the 2009 season ended 85-77. Seattle picked up a game on the division-leading Athletics, who lost to the Tigers.
LHP James Paxton threw a 35-pitch bullpen Monday, using all pitches. He will throw a 50-pitch bullpen Friday before a simulated game during the next homestand . . . The four hits for Jones were a single-game career high . . . The homer by Springer in the first inning was the first Walker yielded in his career.