This April is Taijuan Walker's second with Double-A Jackson, and the Mariners' top prospect thinks he's made some strides in that time.
MLB.com's No. 5 overall prospect put those improvements on display Saturday night, allowing an unearned run on one hit over six innings in a 4-3, 11-inning setback to visiting Pensacola.
The outing was Walker's third straight without allowing an earned run and dropped his ERA to 1.64 over 22 innings. He fanned six against the Blue Wahoos and ranks second in the Southern League with 25 strikeouts.
"I just have kind of been pounding the strike zone, really," he said. "It's really helping me now that I'm able to throw my off-speed pitches for strikes. Hitters can't sit on my fastball. I can get ahead with the off-speed and use my fastball more effectively."
Walker dominated the lower Minor Leagues, thanks primarily to his fastball, which can climb into the mid-90s. Pitching in Double-A last year, however, he finally found hitters catching up to his heat.
"Hitters here see a fastball at 96 and they'll hit it like it looks like a [batting practice] fastball," he said.
The 20-year-old right-hander has addressed that in two ways. One was with the development of a cut fastball, which he now considers one of his best pitches. Step two was the refinement of his off-speed offerings. Walker throws a curveball and changeup and, this year, he's discovered more comfort throwing both, largely due to repetition. For the first time, Walker feels prepared to work backwards, starting hitters with a curve or a change, then coming back with the fastball later in counts.
"Lately, I have been," he said. "Maybe not so much in the first inning, but by the third or fourth or even the second, sometimes. I can start with off-speed, so they're not on my fastball.
"Last year, most of the teams were sitting fastball no matter when. I could throw a good breaking ball and they'd take until I threw the fastball. Now I'm keeping guys more off-balance."
The changeup has required the steepest learning curve but is starting to come along. Walker's throwing more of them and throwing them in more counts. Like many young fireballers, he knows his future may depend on the development of his breaking pitches.
"I thought I threw some good [changeups] tonight," he said. "It still needs some work. I feel comfortable throwing it, but I still just need to mess with it a little more and keep throwing and building confidence."
The cutter also has helped him induce more ground balls. Last year, Walker recorded a 0.97 groundout-to-flyout ratio. This year, he's bumped it up to 1.38.
"Last year, I gave up a ton of fly balls. This year, I'm getting more ground balls," he said. "That's come in part from keeping the ball down and keeping hitters off-balance."
The process is ongoing. Since allowing four runs over five innings on Opening Day, Walker has pitched about as well as he has at any point in the Southern League. The only blemishes in his box scores have been in the walk column -- he issued four on Saturday and has allowed 14 on the year.
The Generals had a 2-1 lead Saturday when Walker exited, but Pensacola's Devin Lohman hit a two-run homer in the seventh.
Francisco Martinez singled home Abraham Almonte in the bottom of the seventh to knot the score at 3-3, but Lohman drove in Vinnie Catricala with a groundout in the 11th to snap the tie.
Mariners No. 8 prospect Brad Miller went 0-for-5 and is in a 1-for-26 slump after beginning the year 14-for-30.