Taijuan Walker doesn't like to pay attention to things like who's leading the league in what category. Sometimes, though, one can't help but notice the numbers.
And if one's nine strikeouts give one the highest total in the Southern League? Well, one would have to take a little bit of pride in that.
"You try not to look at stats too much, but being a competitor, you want to be the best at everything you do," Walker admitted. "Stuff like that, you're always competing with everyone and I work my hardest to be the best I can be."
The Mariners' top prospect established a season high in strikeouts over a 7 1/3 commanding innings Saturday night before Double-A Jackson dropped a 3-1 decision to visiting Chattanooga.
Jackson allowed a run on three hits while matching the Double-A strikeout high he established on June 2, 2012, also against the Lookouts. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 25 batters he faced and reduced his ERA to 2.52, which ranks fifth in the league.
"I would say this was probably one of my best starts," Walker said. "My fastball was working really well; actually, all of my pitches were working well. That's the first game this season I haven't had any walks. Coming out with no walks is a great feeling."
A first-round pick in 2010, Walker pitched only seven innings over four appearances in the Rookie-level Arizona League that season. In 2011, his first full season, he went 6-5 with a 2.89 ERA and 113 strikeouts in the Class A Midwest League. He was the youngest pitcher in the Southern League last year, when he was 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA and 118 strikeouts against 50 walks.
"You think about it, but at the same time, you can't act like you're 19 or think like you're 19," Walker said. "You have to act like a veteran and pitch like veteran. You can't make excuses. You have to remember you're up there for a reason and show you belong, show you're mature enough. Age shouldn't matter."
Now a sage and seasoned 20-year-old, Walker made sure his age was one thing the Lookouts weren't thinking about Saturday. He was perfect his first time through the lineup before Rafael Ynoa led off the fourth with a double to right field.
"Hits are going to be given up," Walker said. "You try to get back in it, lock in, try to get a ground ball or a popup or whatever. And with runners in scoring position, of course you want to bear down and get out of the inning."
That's exactly what he did, setting down 11 in a row. He credited his ability to rely on all of his pitches, especially a curveball that's much improved since last season.
"I really wanted to work on it this year and it's become my out pitch," the California native said. "It wasn't consistent last year and I had lots of trouble without it. This year, it's been consistent and I can throw it at any count. I can do what I want with it. I felt the key is being able to throw all my pitches at any count. I threw a 3-2 changeup tonight, too."
Brian Cavazos-Galvez interrupted the flow by knocking the first pitch of his sixth-inning at-bat over the left-field fence.
"It was a cutter that really didn't cut," Walker said. "It was right down the middle and since it didn't cut, it was basically just a fastball right down the middle. And he put a good swing on it."
The homer tied the game as Chattanooga starter and seventh-ranked Dodgers prospect Chris Reed also threw a gem. The London-born southpaw fanned eight and gave up a run on six hits over 6 1/3 innings.
"He pitched a really good game," Walker said. "You always want to do better than the opposing starter. You try to go out there and one-up him. A pitchers' duel is always fun."
Walker started the eighth by catching J.T. Wise gaping at a 3-2 curveball, which, the hurler said, "was really sharp." Sean Burroughs clubbed a grounder down the right-field line for a double that ended the night for Walker, who threw 63 of 91 pitches for strikes.
"I felt I could have gone all nine," he said. "But they have a lot of lefties in their lineup and it makes sense to bring in a lefty [Nick Hill] in that situation. I understand that decision."
Blake Smith hit a two-run homer in the ninth to put the Lookouts in front, but the Generals appeared poised to answer in the bottom half. With two outs and runners on the corners, Mariners No. 17 prospect Leon Landry smacked a grounder that deflected off the glove of reliever Hector Nelo and was snagged at second by Ynoa, who fired to first to get Landry on a close play.
"It was real close. We all thought he was safe, but it's the ump's call to make," Walker said. "But it is what it is. We have to just forget about it and go out there and get a win tomorrow."
Despite Walker's age and record last year, he'd hoped to start the season with Triple-A Tacoma. Repeating the Southern League, though, gives him an opportunity to see how much he's developed.
"It's been good. I was a little bummed coming back," he said, "but I knew I had some stuff to work on. Hopefully, I'll get my call soon, but I'm still working, trying to get everything perfect."