SURPRISE, Ariz. – Even before making his Cactus League debut, Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Taijuan Walker had made quite the impression.
Of course, it’s hard not to when you stand 6-4 and significantly taller when standing on the mound.
But can he pitch? In a word: yes.
Or better yet, ask the Texas Rangers who were shutout over Walker’s two innings worked Tuesday afternoon at Surprise Stadium.
Acquired in an offseason trade from Seattle to help bolster the D-backs starting rotation, Walker retired six of the eight batters faced with three strikeouts and a pair of singles allowed as part of his 36-pitch effort.
“First time out and I thought the ball was coming out good,” Walker said, adding about his catcher, “Jeff (Mathis) did a great job. We got together before and I thought he did a great job mixing all the pitches; mixing the stuff that I was working on, slider-wise and sinker-wise. I thought he did a really good job with that.”
Walker consistently worked ahead in the count. And even when he didn’t — he fell behind right fielder Travis Snider 3-0 in the first inning — he eventually found his way back in the strike zone.
Snider was a strikeout victim, as were second baseman Drew Robinson and designated hitter Mike Napoli in the first inning –the latter was frozen on a 95 mph fastball that caught the inside part of the plate.
“That’s the biggest thing is just throw strikes, and good quality strikes, too,” said Walker, who threw 26 of his 36 pitches for strikes. “For the first time out, I was throwing my off-speed stuff for strikes, especially my slider which, it’s still new. I was throwing that for strikes, so I felt pretty good with that.”
Walker mentioned he threw at least one slider, sometimes two, to the five right-handed hitters faced. It’s a pitch Walker first experimented with last season.
“I threw a cutter for years and last year I started working on a slider, but it was still more of a cutter. So this year I was really hammering it,” he said, “and I thought there was really good action on it today. I got a couple of swings-and-misses, got some ground balls with it. The biggest thing was to righties — I really want to start throwing it to righties, try to get a strikeout pitch with it, make it into a strikeout pitch. I thought the action was really good for that.”
Walker is also working on a new delivery.
“My windup used to be like David Price’s, just kind of modified,” he said, “but I wasn’t getting the deception with my pitches and stuff, so I wanted to create a full windup so I can get my legs (up) more. I get more rhythm.”
Maybe the best news of Walker’s outing was his health. Back in October, he underwent surgery to remove 10 bone spurs in his right foot.
Walker dealt with the issue for much of last season, impacting his ability to push off the mound.
“After that first pitch I wasn’t really thinking about it at all,” he said. “There’s no pain. Nothing. It feels good right now.”
Added manager Torey Lovullo: “With all things considered, with him coming off the injury, solidifying his delivery and then having those type of results today in his first outing, it was really impressive. It was another day where the pitching set the tone.”
— In the second inning, with the left-handed hitting James Loney at the plate, the D-backs positioned third baseman Dawel Lugo to the right side of second base and second baseman Daniel Descalso about 20 feet into short right field.
More of that, what Lovullo calls overshifting, is to be expected by the D-backs this season.
“We’re going to be very active with it. Very active,” Lovullo said, depending on the count and situation, i.e. men in scoring position. “There’s a lot of components that are adding up right now that are going to give us the best chance to pick up groundballs, and that’s really what we want to do. Catch line drives, as well. The pitchers’ feel, the pitchers’ insight is going to be included in that process. We’re not going to hit it perfect everything time, but we’re going to be as aggressive as we possibly can to make plays from an overshift position.”
Loney, by the way, grounded out to Lugo.
— Descalso hit his first Cactus League home run to highlight the D-backs’ 8-4 victory in front of an announced crowd of 2,556.
“The power didn’t surprise me today. I’ve seen that in spurts,” Lovullo said. “He’s capable of that any time, as far as I’m concerned.”
Shortstop Nick Ahmed, center fielder Socrates Brito and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt also had RBI.
Brito recorded two hits in three at-bats, raising his batting average to .286 over four games.
— When right-hander Zack Greinke will make his first Cactus League appearance remains a mystery. A day after Greinke threw his second live batting practice of the spring, Lovullo said, “We’ll get with Zack and finalize what his thoughts are and move forward from there.”
Again, all parties insist Greinke is healthy, yet the decision to slow-play his progress this camp because of the earlier report date due to the World Baseball Classic next month.
“All systems are a go,” Lovullo said, referring to his ace. “He’s looking very healthy, strong and for me, is exactly where he should be.”
— Of the D-backs health updates, there is good news for third baseman Jake Lamb and reliever Jimmie Sherfy, both of whom had been battling illness. Lamb is expected to return to the lineup Wednesday, while Sherfy, who was hospitalized for two nights, said he “felt a little weak as you would expect, but he was going to get back in his throwing program,” according to Lovullo.
Right-hander Matt Koch (hamstring) threw his second live batting practice and “came out of it very well,” according to Lovullo. The next step for Koch would be to pitch in a game.
Relievers Jake Barrett (shoulder) and Steve Hathaway (shoulder) continue with their throwing programs.
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