NEW YORK -- Had Taijuan Walker ended his season poorly, the Mets would have gone into the offseason with myriad questions about a pitcher who barely two months ago was a National League All-Star. And while one excellent outing to end things won’t change Walker’s overall arc, it did plenty to ease his team’s concerns heading into the winter.
Coming off one of his worst starts of the season, Walker ended his campaign on Wednesday night with arguably his best, pitching into the eighth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Marlins at Citi Field. Before Seth Lugo allowed two inherited runs to spoil Walker’s line and take the loss, the starting pitcher had carried a one-hitter into the eighth.
As it was, Walker finished his year with a 7-11 record and a 4.47 ERA over 159 innings -- a sizeable leap over the 53 1/3 he pitched last year, and by far the most he’s amassed in a year since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018.
“Me personally, I thought it was a really good season,” Walker said. “I know the numbers don’t look good, especially in the second half. But to be where I was the last three years and to go out there and make 29 starts … I would say that’s a win.”
Although Walker, 29, consistently downplayed workload as a reason for his second-half struggles, the narrative became difficult to ignore in August and September. Over a three-season stretch from 2018-20, Walker threw a total of 67 1/3 innings in the big leagues. This year, he rocketed past that in the first half alone, going 7-3 with a 2.66 ERA over 94 2/3 innings to make the NL All-Star team.
When Walker stumbled out of the break, producing a 7.74 second-half ERA entering Wednesday’s play, workload indeed seemed to be the obvious culprit. So it was encouraging for the Mets to see Walker buzz through the Marlins without much issue in his season finale, retiring eight straight during one middle-innings juncture.
“I think Walker threw an amazing game today,” Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas said. “He had everything going. He’s got those four- and two-seamers up and down in the zone, and then he was mixing the changeup. He had a pretty good bite on the slider. He pitched a tremendous game. I feel like he was in total control.”
Pitching into the eighth inning for the first time all season, Walker finally departed after allowing a double and a one-out walk, which led to a pair of inherited runs on his line. But even those could not spoil his night. Walker added a single at the plate, joking that his left-handed swing might have been worthy of a Silver Slugger had he used it all year.
“I told myself coming into today that I really wanted to finish on a good note,” Walker said.
Now, Walker can carry that success into the winter, knowing that no matter how the Mets address their rotation, he will play an important role in it. Signed to a two-year, $20 million late last offseason after Trevor Bauer rejected the Mets’ nine-figure offer, Walker is one of the surest bets New York has in its 2022 starting five.
Jacob deGrom is coming off a right elbow injury that cost him the entire second half. Carlos Carrasco also missed more than half of this season due to injury. If Noah Syndergaard returns, he’ll do so having thrown two innings in two years. Marcus Stroman, like Syndergaard, can be a free agent. Other options -- David Peterson, Tylor Megill, et al. -- are mostly younger pitchers without lengthy track records.
Enough uncertainty exists that when team president Sandy Alderson was asked about the 2022 rotation on Wednesday evening, he replied: “The key is that we want to have as deep a roster of starting pitching as we can possibly have going into Spring Training.”
For the first time in years, Walker can present himself as a key part of that stability: a healthy pitcher who knows where his home will be.
“I think it’s going to be huge for me,” Walker said. “To have a team and to get a good plan together and have a good throwing program and just have people who I can check in with, I think it’s going to be huge.”