Pitching future on display for Mariners
Walker, Hultzen, Paxton and Ramirez pitch in 'B' game
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- There were more scouts behind home plate than fans in the small bleacher section down the foul line on a practice field at the Reds' training complex for a Monday morning "B" game in early March.
But that didn't hide the fact that this was the next step in the progression for four sterling young pitching prospects for the Mariners.
Taijuan Walker, the hard-throwing 19-year-old right-hander, was followed by Danny Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton in what turned into a 4-1 loss to the Reds that will quickly be forgotten by most.
But there were flashes of what is to come for the Mariners, as Walker, Hultzen and Ramirez combined for six shutout innings that included impressive back-to-back, bases-loaded strikeouts by Hultzen, as he dug deep and fired six straight fastballs past Reds youngsters Denis Phipps and Neftali Soto in his first inning of work.
Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick in last June's Draft, was only in the jam because of a pair of errors by second baseman Nick Franklin, followed by a walk. But the former Virginia star knew what to do when faced with a little adversity.
"Our pitching coach in college always told us, 'You're made as a pitcher with men on base,'" Hultzen said. "That's a time you have to really bear down and get aggressive."
His new skipper was happy to see that, as well. Eric Wedge said all of his youngsters "threw the ball well and had good stuff," but he was particularly pleased with Hultzen's escape act.
"He hit another gear when he needed to," Wedge said. "We misplayed a couple balls behind him and he took it into his own hands. So, it's nice to see him be able to dig deep and go there."
Hultzen escaped that jam and joined Walker and Ramirez in throwing a pair of scoreless innings. Only Paxton was touched by the Reds, who pushed across three runs on six hits in the seventh and eighth against the left-hander.
But Paxton figured he learned some things as well, in what served as the spring debut for the foursome, who'd thrown two intrasquad outings prior, but had yet to face an opposing team.
"I felt good. My stuff felt good," Paxton said. "I was just leaving the ball up a little and I needed to mix in some other pitches. I started throwing too many fastballs in a row, I think, and they were just kind of timing things up.
"So [pitching coach Carl Willis] came over and was talking to me about mixing my breaking ball in more early in counts, and that kind of thing. I think it was just one of those kinds of days where you're throwing stuff up there and it's getting hit. But my arm felt good and I'm just looking forward to going out there the next time."
Ramirez, 21, is the least-known, but perhaps most ready, of the four youngsters. The native of Nicaragua has been in the Mariners' Minor League system for four years, advancing to Triple-A Tacoma for the final six weeks last season.
The 5-foot-11 right-hander zipped through two perfect innings with one strikeout and five infield ground outs in an impressive display.
Ramirez said he felt good in the bullpen warming up, and figured he might be in for a good day. The bigger question is where he fits into the Mariners' picture this year. But that's not something he's allowing himself to worry about at the moment.
"Really, I don't keep thinking about it," Ramirez said. "I just want to work harder to make the team. This is the day I've got to do my work. The team is going to make their decision on who is going up or down or what league you're going to be, but I just need to keep working and not worry about what is going to happen. Just worry about that day, about that inning, that hitter."
Walker, just two years removed from high school, is still developing that tunnel vision. He walked the first batter he faced leading off the game and fought his command a little early, but wound up allowing just one more baserunner on a second-inning single and finished with two strikeouts.
"It was cool," Walker said. "I thought I could have got ahead of the hitters more. I fell behind a little bit. But for the most part, I felt good out there."
The only one who didn't enjoy the game much was Franklin, the 21-year-old second baseman who committed two errors in the third inning and later fouled a ball off his ankle that dropped him face-first at home plate and left him hobbling afterward.
Franklin did make a nice stop to his left in the following inning to get a leadoff out for Hultzen, who had bailed him out the previous frame by striking out the last two batters with the bases full.
"That's what baseball is about, to pick up each other and pick up your teammates," Hultzen said. "I knew Nick made a couple errors, but I knew he'd make a great play and he did that next inning. So that was cool to see him do that."
What's next for the fearsome foursome? All are long shots to crack the rotation this quickly, but Wedge said they'll continue getting prepared for starting roles for wherever they land. The Mariners have split-squad games this Saturday, so that opens up some innings for all four to pitch again on four day's rest.
"All the starters, we'll keep stretching them out," said Wedge. "We've got probably 8, 9, 10 guys we'll continue to stretch out. Obviously we won't be able to do it all up here [in Cactus League play], but we'll make sure they get to where they need to be by the time we break camp."