Taijuan Walker was crammed into the middle seat of a plane at a Tennessee airport, destined for Tacoma.
The 6-foot-4, 210 pound pitcher said it was one of the more uncomfortable flights he’s endured.
But now, being in Tacoma and only a short distance from Seattle, he’s feeling plenty comfortable.
“Seattle is just right there,” the 20-year-old flame-throwing right-hander said.
He arrived in Tacoma on Saturday, picked up a Tacoma Rainiers uniform and now Walker, who he says he threw a 100 mph pitch earlier in the year, waits for Tuesday when he makes his first Triple-A start.
“I was working hard, so I actually kind of wanted to be called up sooner,” Walker said. “But that’s not in my hands, so all I can do is really control what I do on the field. Just go out there, compete and get better with each start.”
The Mariners had seen enough of Walker mowing down Double-A hitters with the Jackson Generals. He struck out a Southern League-best 96 batters and recorded a 2.46 ERA in 84 innings pitched.
Walker obviously has the fastball to whiff almost any hitter he faces, but commanding it with his changeup and curveball was a problem. He went 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA in Jackson last year.
He appears to have fixed a lot of that this year, validating high expectations for the 20-year-old. He’s even added a cutter.
“You can’t get away with just throwing fastballs, especially up here and then up in the big leagues,” Walker said. “I really had to work on my curveball, consistency and changeup.”
“Right now, I’m in a pretty good groove; I just want to keep it going.”
The Rainiers already are laden with plenty talent, even with the promotions of Mike Zunino and Nick Franklin to Seattle. But none, according to Baseball America, are on Walker’s level.
Walker is ranked the organization’s No. 2 prospect behind Zunino according to Baseball America and is MLB.com’s second-ranked pitching prospect in all of minor league baseball behind Baltimore Orioles’ righty Dylan Bundy. Texas Rangers shortstop Jurickson Profar is the No. 1 overall prospect.
Drafted 43rd overall by Seattle as a 17-year-old in 2010, Walker is the youngest player on Tacoma’s roster. He turns 21 on Aug. 13.
But he’s not the only young starting pitcher in the Rainiers’ rotation with electric stuff:
- Brandon Maurer (1-1, 2.41 ERA) is battling to get back to the major leagues after he started the season there.
- James Paxton (4-5, 5.18 ERA) is the Mariners’ fourth-ranked prospect.
- Erasmo Ramirez (2-2, 1.69 ERA) might have started the season with the Mariners had he not been sidelined with a triceps injury. He should be in Seattle soon the way he is throwing.
- Danny Hultzen (3-1, 2.78 ERA) is the Mariners third-ranked prospect and the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft. He is currently on the disabled list nursing a shoulder injury.
Walker said he looks forward to throwing with most of them again since getting the opportunity to do so last year in Jackson, where him, Paxton and Hultzen were even dubbed “The Big 3.”
“I’ve got to compete with them,” Walker said. “I want to go out there and do better than them. But it’s just friendly competition. I’ve played with almost every person here, it’s been fun.”
For Walker to stand out among the Rainiers’ talented staff, he said he just needs to relax and be himself.
“I just got to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said.