When the Mets signed Taijuan Walker to a two-year deal back in February, pitchers and catchers had already settled into spring training as camp got underway. Then, the front office envisioned Walker sliding into the rotation behind Marcus Stroman and Carlos Carrasco. With the latter pitcher out so far this season with a hamstring injury, Walker and other starters were asked to step up in an effort to overcome the early-year adversity to their rotation.
Walker, through six starts in 2021, has been a gem for the Mets. The established veteran starter pitched his best outing in orange and blue in the team’s 4-1 win over the Cardinals on Thursday, causing fans to wonder where the team would even stand without his late-offseason acquisition.
“He’s in attack mode from pitch one,” catcher James McCann said. “For me, he’s a guy you can’t sleep on. He should be in the talks of being that guy at the top of the rotation the way he’s throwing the ball.”
The Mets (13-13) climbed out of their hole and improved to a .500 record following a series split with the Cardinals. The Amazin’s went 4-3 across their seven away games in Philadelphia and St. Louis.
“This road trip was a successful one,” said Francisco Lindor, who snapped his 0-for-26 slump with a ninth-inning single. “We played very well as a team.”
Walker matched a career-high by retiring 18 straight batters from the second inning to seventh. He pitched seven scoreless innings (one unearned run allowed on a Nolan Arenado single through the shift), gave up just one hit and struck out eight Cardinals, including three punchouts against six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt. Walker lowered his season ERA to 2.38.
He was even completely unfazed by the brief rain delay before the bottom of the sixth inning that had a chance to end his terrific outing too soon. But the delay was only about 17 minutes, which allowed Walker to take the hill for the sixth again. He picked up where he left off, again and again retiring the side, and refusing to allow St. Louis’ hitters on base.
“It’s just about getting strike one,” Walker said of his 18 straight outs. “Once I get strike one, I feel under control. I feel like I did a good job of doing that today. It’s just really pounding the strike zone.”
Walker’s run support arrived through one of those rare occurrences where three of the Mets’ four runs were the product of not hits, but walks. Jonathan Villar, McCann and Pete Alonso collected three bases-loaded walks to plate their first three runs before Dominic Smith finally ripped an RBI single with runners in scoring position in the eighth.
Six Cardinals pitchers combined to issue 11 walks in the nine-inning game. The Mets, a club that has deeply struggled with runners in scoring position, tried instead a new strategy and watched, with their bats on their shoulders, as balls sailed out of the strike zone.
Though the bases-loaded walks were a quirky way to score runs, the Mets should have beat the Cardinals on Thursday in at least a 10-run blowout. The Mets set a franchise record and left 17 men on base. McNeil, Kevin Pillar and McCann were each responsible for stranding three runners. Lindor left two on, and Alonso, Smith and Michael Conforto each left one.
“We did a really good job of laying off some tough pitches and handing the baton to the next guy,” McCann said. “When you look at today’s win, that’s what it was, a full-team win. Guys did a good job passing to the next guy.”
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