D-backs’ Taijuan Walker shuts down White Sox, praises Oscar Hernandez
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — First-year Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo has said repeatedly he listens to his players.
That said, the D-backs will take notice of their pitchers’ opinions when it comes to how the catching rotation figures. While nothing is set in stone as of now, Lovullo has reminded that Arizona likes all of its many options behind the plate.
Against the Chicago White Sox on Sunday, starting pitcher Taijuan Walker pitched three frames, allowing one hit while striking out two. He needed just 26 pitches (19 strikes) to close his performance before he tossed another 20 pitches in the bullpen expecting to reach a pitch count of 60 next time out.
And wouldn’t you know it, when asked about his own performance, Walker, unprompted after the 4-1 D-backs win, steered the conversation toward catcher Oscar Hernandez.
“We were just being aggressive with the fastball, trying to locate it well and then mix the slider — they had a lot of righties — so that was good,” Walker said. “Oscar, he’s unbelievable behind the plate, has soft hands, calls a good game, too.”
Hernandez missed only one day of catching duties through the first 11 games of spring. While the 23-year-old is the youngest of six catchers on the Diamondbacks’ spring roster — two are on minor-league deals — he’s nonetheless impressed as Arizona analyzes its crop of defensive-focused players at the position.
“I’m … playing every day. I feel like it’s going to help me get to know those pitchers,” Hernandez said. “Honestly, I’m not (thinking) about if I’m gonna make the team. I mean, I really want to make the team this year. I’m going to keep working hard to have like a good experience with those pitchers, new pitchers, and then — because I don’t know if I’m going to stay here or I’m going to the minor league — at the same time I can come back and I’m going to have (an) idea about those pitchers.”
Hernandez’s pitchers are also making him look good.
Walker threw 15 pitches, 11 for strikes through the first two frames Sunday, including three flyouts and three groundouts. The right-hander began the third inning with two strikeouts and induced an infield groundout that he fielded himself.
“It was quick and that’s kind of what I wanted,” Walker said, adding that his lower body strength after undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs this offseason is helping him on the mound.
“I’m able to push off a little bit more,” Walker added. “I’m still working on the lower half, but I’m able to push off and really get into my legs now. I feel like my confidence level is up too, just knowing I can use my lower half.”
As for the 23-year-old Hernandez, who was adding offense by batting .417 heading into Sunday with two home runs, Walker is impressed with not only his soft hands but his pitch-calling.
“Threw to (Jeff) Mathis my first start,” Walker said. “Oscar caught my one of my live BPs, and you know, I like throwing to him because he’s a big target, great frame, has a great arm. But he also calls a good game, he doesn’t just put stuff down. He really takes time and focuses on what pitches to throw.”
Lovullo has repeatedly mentioned Hernandez and Josh Thole are right in the catcher mix. They join Mathis, Chris Iannetta and Chris Herrmann, all three of whom join Hernandez on the 40-man roster.
In terms of the catching situation, it could be a bit longer before the D-backs make any decisions.
“Right now, the way that I’m mapping it out is to make sure that every starting pitcher, every projected catcher has a chance to be kind of intertwined in they work with one another,” Lovullo said. “And then the next step is to make sure every reliever has a chance to throw to every catcher possible. So that’s my main objective, that’s where I am at right now.
“It’s not a perfect science. It gets challenging sometimes. To bake them together perfectly right now is not my top priority. It’s mostly about them getting familiar with one another.”
“I think he’s just in a great place. He’s in tremendous shape, not that he wasn’t in tremendous shape last year,” D-backs pitcher coach Mike Butcher said of Shelby Miller’s strong spring thus far. “Mentally he’s just, he’s where he needs to be. The ball is coming out of his hand, the command is really good, he’s repeating his delivery. He just looks really, really good right now. And he’s confident. He’s on a mission right now.
“Velocity aside, the curveball, the cutter, the changeup, they’re all — it’s really, really good.”
NAKAUSHIRO RE-ASSIGNED WITH 3 OTHERS
It’s not been a year since the Diamondbacks signed Japanese reliever Yuhei Nakaushiro to a minor-league contract.
In that time, the 27-year-old Nakaushiro made a speedy jump from Single-A ball to Triple-A, closing last season with 13 scoreless appearances with the Reno Aces. His rise to the majors will have to wait, as he was one of four pitchers re-assigned to minor-league camp on Sunday.
RHP Miller Díaz, RHP Joey Krehbiel and LHP Josh Taylor joined Nakaushiro on the move to the minors.
“He was a swift mover through the system last year. He should be very proud of that,” Lovullo said. “We just felt like he needed a little more seasoning. The fastball command wasn’t exactly where we wanted, the secondary stuff was lacking consistency.”
Lovullo said the team did not want Nakaushiro to be under the pressure of having to perform every few days, and minor league camp would help him focus on improving.
“The last thing we said to him is that he’s very close,” Lovullo said. “He’s very close to becoming a big-leaguer.”