At 49-36, the Tacoma Rainiers have the best record in the Pacific Coast League. Now they have one of baseball's top pitching prospects is firmly entrenched in the rotation, they're even more dangerous. Even when he's not at his best.
Making his second Triple-A start, Taijuan Walker (2-0) allowed two hits and a pair of walks while striking out eight batters over five shutout innings in the Rainiers' 4-1 win over the Colorado Springs Sky Sox.
"I didn't think I did that great, my stuff wasn't all there tonight," said Walker, who threw 59 of 93 pitches for strikes. "But I fought through it and got through five innings and gave my team a chance to win.
"I just wasn't using my legs. When that happens, I get out of my mechanics and try to use all arm. My curveball wasn't there and my fastball command wasn't there, but my cutter was good and I got a couple strikeouts on it. It gives me that much more confidence because ... I grinded through it."
The Mariners' top prospect allowed a pair of two-out hits to first baseman Ben Paulsen -- a double to left field in the second inning and a single to right in the fourth -- but he kept the rest of the Sky Sox a combined 0-for-15.
No batter reached third base against Walker, who also uncorked a wild pitch and set the side down in order in his first and last innings.
"I have an advantage being new. Triple-A hitters haven't seen me pitch too much and I haven't seen them either, so I can just go out and attack them," Walker said. "My catcher [Brandon Bantz] called a great game. I just didn't execute, but it was a great team win overall. The defense made plays, the offense scored runs and the bullpen came in and shut it down."
In his first Triple-A start on Wednesday, MLB.com's No. 5 prospect allowed three hits over six scoreless innings against Fresno. Before that, he struck out 12 batters in his final Double-A start for Jackson on June 20.
Across the two levels, Walker -- selected by the Mariners 43rd overall in the 2010 Draft -- is 6-7 with a 2.91 ERA and 108 strikeouts over 95 innings. On Wednesday, Walker was one of two Mariners prospects, along with Brad Miller, to be selected to represent Team USA at the 2013 Futures Game.
Walker also earned a selection to the team last year when the game was held at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium.
The biggest change Walker has noticed since moving up a level is not so much the new faces, but rather the climate.
"I played with pretty much all these guys last year, so I was very comfortable coming up, said the 20-year-old Louisiana native. "I just fit right in because I played with them, so that was not a big deal.
"It's just getting used to the colder weather and the rain and stuff. The humidity is a big difference between Tacoma and Jackson, but I would say that's pretty much it. The humidity drains you and wears you out because it's hot and sticky and you start sweating more. It makes your jersey sweaty and that much heavier. It's bad for pitchers, but it affects position players and catchers too because it drains you out."
On Monday, Brian Moran yielded a run over 2 2/3 innings of relief, Lucas Luetge retired one batter to get the game to the ninth and Logan Bawcom fanned two batters over a perfect final frame to record his 13th save of the season.
Colorado Springs starter Jeff Manship (3-7) allowed two runs on eight hits and two walks over 5 1/3 innings.