PEORIA, Ariz. – It’s everything they’ve worked for or thought about since baseball became something more than just a game to play with their friends. It’s just 60 feet, 6 inches from their grasp, reliant on their ability to fire a baseball from that distance. It’s a goal fans want, and the Seattle Mariners need them to achieve.
For Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, a place in the opening day rotation is there for them to take.
While both pitchers have been considered promising prospects for all of their young careers, they’ve never faced preseason expectations quite like this.
Heck, even Felix Hernandez anticipates them to be in the rotation.
Somewhere between extolling the virtues of LeBron James and discussing the eclectic mix of music being played during daily workouts, the M’s ace was asked if it’s fair to Walker and Paxton that fans have cemented them into the rotation despite just a combined seven starts in the major leagues.
“They’re in,” Hernandez said in a tone so matter-of-fact it was as if he were describing Seattle precipitation in the winter.
That sentiment didn’t change with a handful of reporters around him later. Hernandez was asked what advice he’d give Walker and Paxton to make the rotation.
“They will,” he said, pausing. “They have a lot of talent. The advice is just to keep working hard and do your thing. That’s all they have to do.”
But are they ready for all of this?
“We’ll find out,” manager Lloyd McClendon said with a chuckle.
It’s not a given.
Yes, the two looked solid last September. Paxton went 3-0 in four starts, with a 1.50 earned-run average, striking out 21 batters in 24 innings. Walker made three starts, posting a 1-0 record and 3.60 ERA. He struck out 12 batters in 15 innings.
But it’s one thing to make a handful of starts at the end of a lost season. It’s another to make the Opening Day rotation and navigate your way through the grueling marathon of a major league season without a meltdown.
Are they really ready for that?
“Yes,” said pitching coach Rick Waits. “I don’t even need to elaborate. I think they’re ready. Will they leave with us? We’ll see. I mean, that’s up to Lloyd. But mentally and preparedness? Yes, I think they are.”
If Walker or Paxton is feeling overwhelmed by the hype, it isn’t noticeable. They understand the opportunity and any factors that might come with it.
“There is a little more pressure,” Walker said. “But I can use that pressure as a positive thing. I can use that pressure to push me.”
The taste of the big leagues at the end of last season pushed Walker and Paxton in the offseason. They saw what their lives could be like as big leaguers. It’s addictive.
“You fly on your own plane, the postgame spreads, you get to pitch in these beautiful, huge ballparks with fans there watching,” Walker said. “And you are facing the best.”
Walker saw the best – Miguel Cabrera – hit an opposite-field home run off buddy Brandon Maurer on a pitch that wasn’t close to a strike.
“It was in the other batter’s box,” Walker said with amazement. “The hitters are just that much better. So I have to be that much better.”
Walker added 10 pounds to his frame, working hard to build leg strength for stamina late in the season. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, he looks more like strong safety than strong-armed pitcher.
“I worked hard this offseason,” he said. “I knew what I had to do.”
Paxton didn’t change his workouts or routine. There was just a different mindset during them because of that brief time in the bigs.
“The experience I had in September was better for my mental preparation,” he said. “I’ve been there so I know what it’s like to be there. I visualized what it’s like to be on that mound.”
There is a sense of belonging. Because no matter how hard you throw, how much your curveball breaks or how confident you might seem, there is always that lingering fear in a pitcher that his stuff won’t play at the big-league level.
Paxton and Walker have no such reservations after last year.
“I found that you don’t have to be perfect,” Paxton said. “You don’t have to nibble on the corners so much, you can get those guys out in the strike zone. I didn’t necessarily have to be on the black. It was just get it on the outer third of the plate and make sure it’s down in the zone. Just go right at guys.”
They are far from finished products. Their success starts with fastball command. Both can hit mid-90s with the pitch, but so can a lot of other pitchers. Command is the separator.
“It’s always that first,” Paxton said.
Beyond their fastballs, both need to refine their off-speed pitches. Walker didn’t find the feel of his curveball until midseason last year. Paxton’s change-up is a work in progress and he’s added a cut fastball.
“I want to get more consistent with everything,” Walker said.
Are they ready? They sure sound like it.