Mariners RHP Taijuan Walker has all but locked up the No. 5 spot in the Mariners rotation by pitching like an ace.
RHP Taijuan Walker bolstered his bid to become the Mariners’ fifth starter by extending his spring training scoreless streak to 18 innings in Wednesday night’s 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs at Peoria Stadium.
The 22-year-old allowed two hits — both singles — a walk and struck out six over six frames en route to the win. He faced just one batter over the minimum, thanks to a pair of double-play groundballs.
How good was Walker?
He struck out the side in the fourth, threw 57 of 82 pitches for strikes and touched 97 miles per hour on the radar gun.
“I felt good, my fastball was there. My fastball location felt really good today,” he said. “Everything felt smooth.”
In five spring starts, Walker has yet to give up a run and struck out 19, turning the competition with LHP Roenis Elias and RHP Erasmo Ramirez for the Mariners final rotation spot into an apparent rout.
But manager Lloyd McClendon wasn’t ready to award Walker the job Wednesday night. The former top prospect likely has two spring starts left before the Mariners begin the regular season April 6 at Safeco Field against the Angels. McClendon will likely announce the winner next week.
“He was OK,” McClendon joked Wednesday after Walker’s best outing of the spring.
After an injury-plagued 2014 that saw him primarily split time between Triple-A Tacoma and Seattle, Walker has a chance to set the club record for spring training ERA (minimum of 20 innings), which LHP Matt Young posted in 1983 (0.44 ERA).
What else can Walker (2-0) do to improve his chances of making the club?
“Just stay consistent,” McClendon said. “Keep pitching well. He threw up a lot of zeroes and pitched well. He fatigued a little in the sixth, but I thought he threw the ball extremely well.”
Mariners C Mike Zunino referred to the former top prospect’s complement of pitches as “unbelievable.”
“It just comes out so easy that it’s tough to time up,” he said after notching his fourth home run of the spring on his 24th birthday. “He’s got late explosion and it sort of takes off.”
Weeks in line for leadoff duties
It appears CF Austin Jackson might not be the Mariners full-time leadoff hitter, after all.
Wednesday, McClendon had Jackson batting second and utility man Rickie Weeks in the leadoff spot. The former Brewer went 1-for-3 with a run to lift his spring average to .250.
Weeks is expected to split time in left field with Dustin Ackley this season. But he could also play some first base to get more at-bats after spending his 11 seasons in Milwaukee playing second.
The 32-year-old is no stranger to batting first. He owns a .256/.353/.445 slash line in 628 games as a leadoff man — all with the Brewers. If McClendon decides to use him in that role with Seattle, he could slide Jackson down to the No. 2 spot to try to maximize his skills as a situational hitter.
He seems comfortable with either of them hitting first.
“Every player is different,” McClendon said. “They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Rickie has close to 3,000 at-bats in the leadoff spot, and 100 home runs. There’s a lot to like about him there. Austin is a speed guy that hits a lot of triples and doubles. They both bring a lot to the table.”
Only Rodney a lock for the bullpen
The Mariners return almost every reliever from a bullpen that ranked first in the majors last season with a 2.59 ERA.
The competition among relievers to break camp with Seattle in 2015 appears tight.
As of Thursday, McClendon said the only reliever guaranteed to have a spot in the Mariners’ projected seven-man bullpen is All-Star closer Fernando Rodney.
“One thing I expressed to the guys in that bullpen, is that (closer Fernando) Rodney is etched in stone,” McClendon told The News Tribune. “Nobody else. Whether you like it or you don’t, it’s just a fact.”
That leaves RHP Yoervis Medina, RHP Dominic Leone, RHP Danny Farquhar, RHP Carson Smith, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP Mark Lowe, LHP Charlie Furbush, LHP David Rollins, LHP Tyler Olson to battle for the other six spots.
“I think this organization is at a point now where we don’t have to take guys to the big leagues out of necessity,” McClendon said. “We’re at a point now where we take guys because they’re the best ones to take.
“And there’s a lot of competition. I would say we’ve got nine or 10 legit people for a seven-man bullpen. So decisions are going to be tough.”
Hernandez sharp in loss
RHP Felix Hernandez was effective for six innings, allowing two hits, one run and striking out four, but the Mariners’ offense was MIA Thursday in a 3-0 loss to the Royals at Peoria Stadium.
It represented a bounce-back effort for Hernandez after he allowed six hits and six runs in 2.2 innings to the Cubs in his previous start.
“Good command, good pitches,” Hernandez told MLB.com. “I was trying to throw zeros. The change-up was nice, the slider was good, the fastball was unbelievable. I was finding the strike zone, I was down in the zone and getting a lot of ground balls. It was good.”
But he was out-dueled by Kansas City RHP Jeremy Guthrie, who allowed two hits and fanned two over 5.2 shutout innings.
The Mariners were also routed 15-1 in a split-squad affair Thursday against the Milwaukee Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix.
It wasn’t a great day to be a Mariners starter not named Felix.
Looking to make a case for the fifth spot in Seattle’s rotation, LHP Roenis Elias (0-2) allowed six runs on eight hits and three walks in three innings. His lowlight came when he yielded a first-inning grand slam to Brewers left fielder Khris Davis, putting Seattle in a quick 4-0 hole.
The rest of the afternoon didn’t improve for Seattle. The Mariners were out-hit 22-4, with their only run coming in the third inning on an RBI single from backup C Jesus Sucre.
2B Robinson Cano and CF Austin Jackson added singles, while backup infielder Willie Bloomquist added a double.
That was it.
The loss dropped the Mariners to 10-12-2 in Cactus League. Next up is a 6:05 p.m Friday night game against the Royals at Surprise Stadium, with LHP James Paxton facing off against hard-thrower Yordano Ventura.