New guy! Taijuan's 6 clean in Toronto debut

August 30th, 2020

knows how to make a first impression.

The Blue Jays acquired Walker from the Mariners on Thursday to help solidify their rotation with consistent innings, but Walker’s debut went well beyond that. With six shutout frames in Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Orioles at Sahlen Field, the right-hander was rock steady, pitching like his nine-day layoff and the trade hadn’t even happened.

Walker knew when to be aggressive and fill the zone -- especially when Toronto extended its lead -- which is something the rest of the rotation has struggled with at times. No Blue Jays starter has pitched into the seventh inning or touched 100 pitches yet -- Walker threw 92 -- and that’s often been due to nibbling around the zone or falling victim to one long inning. The situational feel Walker showed on Saturday bodes well, though, and much of that can be attributed to a change he’s made to his pitch arsenal.

Pitching just 14 combined innings in the 2018 and '19 seasons due to Tommy John surgery and recovery, then changing organizations from the D-backs to the Mariners, Walker had plenty of time to think and tinker.

“I feel like I was mostly just fastball and changeup,” he said while being introduced as a Blue Jay on Friday. “Now, this year, with all of the new pitching technology that’s out there, I was able to turn my cutter into more of a true slider. I really worked hard with that. My curveball, too, just having more confidence in it. I’m able to throw it for strikes in any counts.”

Walker leaned on that cutter-turned-slider 25 times Saturday, producing four whiffs, and the balance it gave his game plan was evident in the type of contact he allowed. The Orioles averaged an exit velocity of just 76.5 mph against Walker, which is why his six scoreless innings seemed to flow so easily. There were some expected command issues that came and went after his long layoff between starts, but even when the ball was put in play, there was rarely much of a threat.

Walker didn’t feel he had his best curveball and described his changeup as “just OK,” but he had no shortage of praise for catcher Danny Jansen behind the plate. They kept going to those pitches regardless to keep the Orioles off balance, and it paid off. Saturday's performance was a fine way to introduce himself to new teammates, too, even if Walker tried to keep that thought to the side.

“That’s just unwanted pressure,” he said. “It’s still baseball. It’s still the same game. Honestly, I just want to go out there and keep my same game plan and keep the same mentality I’ve had all year so far. I just want to go out there and attack. We’ve got a really good group of guys here. Defensively, offensively and the pitching staff, too. Winning is always fun, so to be able to go out there and help the team win felt good.”

The Blue Jays are starting to flip the script after the early weeks of their 2020 season were weighed down with a steady stream of defensive blunders and fundamental errors. On Saturday night, it was the Orioles making those mistakes and Toronto capitalizing, giving a great example of the “clean” baseball that manager Charlie Montoyo has been begging his club to play.

And Saturday's win moves the Blue Jays to 17-14, giving them two games of breathing room on the Tigers for the American League's last Wild Card spot, with the struggling Orioles falling a full 3 1/2 games back.

Few hitters have been more encouraging lately in this charge than , who simply didn’t look like himself early this season but has suddenly turned a corner. Guerrero is tapping into his lower body to generate power more often now, which was missing before with his swing too upright, and the results are obvious. His two-run single in the first inning left the bat at 115.8 mph as he seems to be barreling up everything in the zone over the past week, with an 11-game hitting streak to show for it.