Walker hangs tough to end Mariners' skid

Nola, Williams also make most of opportunities vs. Dodgers

August 20th, 2020

SEATTLE -- A year ago, was recovering from Tommy John surgery, was trying to make a Major League roster for the first time as a 29-year-old rookie utility player and was putting up a 9.82 ERA and trying to salvage his career with the Brewers.

Fast forward to Wednesday night at T-Mobile Park, and the trio proved to be the key figures in Seattle’s 6-4 victory over the Dodgers as the youngest team in MLB snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating the best team in the National League.

Things haven’t come easy this year for Seattle, but it’s worth remembering that the Mariners started five rookies and three players with just one year of Major League experience on Wednesday as they continued a learning process they hope will pay dividends in the future.

“This is the year of opportunity, and guys are taking it and running with it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s been pretty cool to watch.”

Here’s how three of the key players Wednesday are seizing the opportunity:

Walker rebuilding his career
Things weren’t looking good for Walker after he gave up three home runs in the first three innings to the high-powered Dodgers. But the big right-hander survived that barrage, changed his plan of attack in midstream and continued showing he might be a better version of the once-promising prospect the Mariners traded away in 2016.

“They were sitting on his fastball,” said Servais. “That’s the maturity of Taijuan Walker. The last time he was a Mariner here a few years ago, he couldn't have made that adjustment mid-game. He’s learned. He went to some changeups, two-seamers, a lot of curveballs and got the cutter going. It really slowed them down.”

The three home runs allowed -- to Max Muncy, Joc Pederson and Cody Bellinger -- equaled the most in Walker’s career. All came off fastballs.

“We said, ‘Let's start pitching backwards,'” Walker said. “I was able to throw my offspeed for strikes. It was fun. It was nice making that adjustment midgame like that. Recognizing it early, Nola did an amazing job behind the plate. We switched up the game plan and executed really well.”

Walker wound up allowing just four hits and three runs over seven innings while striking out eight. He retired the last 12 batters he faced in his 106-pitch outing. The 28-year-old is 2-2 with a 4.00 ERA in five starts after signing with Seattle on a one-year free-agent deal this spring.

Nola shining in new role
With starting catcher Tom Murphy sidelined likely for the entire season with a broken bone in his left foot, Nola has stepped into an everyday role and excelled both behind the plate and swinging the bat.

His three-run blast in the third gave the Mariners the lead after the Dodgers’ early home run party, and Nola wound up going 2-for-4 with four RBIs, hiking his average to .279 with three home runs.

Most impressive to Servais has been Nola’s ability to handle the load behind the plate, having started just four MLB games at catcher before this season. Nola came up in the Minors as a shortstop, didn’t move behind the plate until 2017 and played mostly first base last year in his first exposure to the big leagues.

“He’s never caught this much,” Servais said. “I don’t think people understand that he’s a converted guy and now he’s playing every day. Oftentimes, the wear and tear and grind and foul tips and everything add up, and the bat will slow down. But this guy is an unbelievable worker. How he prepares and what he does is some of the most unique things I’ve seen.

“Austin Nola is a self-made big leaguer, and he’s not looking back. He spent too much time in the Minor Leagues to not continue to try to improve and get better every day. He’s a great example for our young players.”

Williams saves the day
Things got a little hairy in the ninth as the Dodgers loaded the bases against Williams, but the 29-year-old right-hander struck out Corey Seager to end the game and record his fourth save of the season.

It’s a pretty amazing situation for a guy who was claimed off waivers from the Brewers early in Spring Training and now finds himself closing out games for the team he rooted for growing up as a Mariners fan in Camas, Wash.

“I definitely wouldn’t have expected to be where I’m at right now,” Williams said. “I’ve always worked and set my goals high and worked to achieve success and be in higher-leverage situations, but if you’d have told me I was doing that for the Seattle Mariners a few months ago, I’d have thought you were crazy.”

Servais isn’t designating any specific closer and will continue to use different relievers in that situation, but just being in late-inning situations speaks volumes for Williams.

“It means a lot,” he said. “Just to be here and put this uniform on is a huge opportunity. Any time I’m able to go out and pitch for this team, it’s important to me. Especially having the opportunity to close out games and secure some wins for this team means a huge amount to me, just to secure wins for teammates who’ve played hard and played well. That’s the most important thing for me.”