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For Walker, decision to pitch in '20 was easy

Righty healthy, ready for Mariners' rotation in comeback from TJ
@gregjohnsmlb
July 7, 2020

SEATTLE -- Having thrown just one inning in the Majors over the past 25 months since Tommy John surgery, Taijuan Walker didn’t need much debate over whether to pitch in this shortened COVID-19 campaign for the Mariners. Finally healthy, the 27-year-old right-hander used MLB’s three-month shutdown to continue building up

SEATTLE -- Having thrown just one inning in the Majors over the past 25 months since Tommy John surgery, Taijuan Walker didn’t need much debate over whether to pitch in this shortened COVID-19 campaign for the Mariners.

Finally healthy, the 27-year-old right-hander used MLB’s three-month shutdown to continue building up his arm strength, and he was hitting 90-93 mph with his fastball on Tuesday in his first live throwing session of Summer Camp against teammates Kyle Seager and Dee Gordon.

Walker underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in 2018 while with the D-backs and returned in time to pitch one frame in Arizona’s final game last season before re-signing with Seattle on a one-year free-agent deal this spring.

So while some MLB veterans have pondered whether to opt out or elect not to play this season for family and health concerns, Walker is all in as he looks to rebuild his once-promising career.

“Rest is always good,” Walker said. “I feel good, my arm feels good. I like where I’m at. It’s usually a marathon to get ready and keep going, but it’s almost like a sprint now. We have three weeks to get ready. We have to ramp up. Obviously we have to do it smart and listen to our bodies, but we don’t have much time to get ready and going.”

Walker signed back with the Mariners -- the team that drafted and developed him before a trade to the D-backs in 2016 -- with the intention of proving he was healthy again heading into free agency in ’21. He’ll have less time to show that now in a 60-game season, but no less motivation. Walker is expected to be part of the six-man rotation the Mariners employ to start the season, along with Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Kendall Graveman and rookies Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn.

“The biggest thing is just making those 10-11 starts for me,” he said. “Just staying healthy and trying to get as many innings as I can. My stuff is there, so the biggest thing is just showing I’m healthy and can go out there and pitch every fifth day or whatever it is.”

He built a gym in his garage in Paradise Valley, Ariz., in order to keep working out during the break, played catch with a neighborhood friend and worked back up to throwing bullpens in recent weeks. Now he’s wearing his mask, closely following the COVID-19 protocols and waiting for his wife and 2-year-old son to arrive soon from Arizona.

He’s seen former teammates Mike Leake and Félix Hernández elect not to participate this season and understands their rationale. But he’s ready to play.

“My situation is kind of different,” he said. “I’ve pitched one inning in the last 2 1/2 years, so I’m going to do everything we can so we can play baseball. I’m going to do my part.”

The toughest part of the on-field protocols being put in place?

“Honestly, just being apart from our teammates,” Walker said. “As pitchers, we always huddle around and talk and we love watching each other’s bullpens. That’s been a little different, just keeping six-foot distance and stuff. But honestly, it just feels good to be back out there and be at T-Mobile Park again and seeing how beautiful the park is.”

Short takes from Summer Camp
• Rookie outfielder Jake Fraley took a glancing blow off his helmet on a pitch from hard-throwing right-hander Gerson Bautista during a live batting practice session on Tuesday morning. Fraley stayed on his feet, but was attended to by athletic trainer Matt Toth and walked to the clubhouse to be checked out.

• After sitting out Monday with a bruised left foot from a ball he fouled off himself on Sunday, catcher Tom Murphy was back on the field Tuesday and took part in the full morning workout.

• Among the highlights of Tuesday afternoon’s workout: Mariners top prospect Jarred Kelenic hit a rocket off the Hit it Here Café in right field off right-hander Ljay Newsome during live batting practice.

• Beginning this Friday, manager Scott Servais said the Mariners will play intrasquad games every day, until they open the regular season on July 24 in Houston. The one exception will be a day off on Friday, July 17. Some of the intrasquad games will be played in the evening to get the team ready for night games during the season.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.