At some point, what the four starters in the Double-A Jackson Generals' rotation do becomes less an exercise in pitching and more an exercise in simply one-upping each other.
Taijuan Walker was the latest to take his turn rendering an opponent punchless, blanking Tennessee on six hits and a walk while striking out five over six innings Friday in the Generals' 3-0 win.
The outing dropped Walker's ERA to 1.64, putting him out front in a rotation that includes Danny Hultzen (2-2, 2.08), Andrew Carraway (3-0, 2.63) and James Paxton (2-0, 3.09).
"Our rotation is really good. We have a lot of good pitchers, even our bullpen is really good," said the 19-year-old right-hander. "We just keep feeding off each other and it's one of those things where we just keep building off one another. It's great we can do that."
The Mariners' No. 3 prospect improved to 3-0 in four starts this season. In all four outings, he's struck out at least five batters while allowing no more than two runs. Walker is second in the Southern League in ERA and has 26 strikeouts over 22 innings against six walks.
Walker said he worked without the best control of his fastball Friday but compensated with a greater emphasis on his off-speed pitches, particularly his changeup and curveball.
"I felt like I was pretty good," he said. "I actually had to mix my pitches today. Our defense played really well behind me and we got runs in the sixth. I just want to keep commanding my fastball and mixing my pitches well, and the rest will take care of itself."
With the way the four starters are performing, it's hard to imagine they'll be clustered together for too long. Walker, MLB.com's No. 18 overall prospect, said there isn't any competition to be the first to earn a promotion, but it's something that's difficult to completely put out of one's mind.
"You know you try not to think about [getting called up], but it's always in the back of your mind," he said. "You obviously want to pitch good so you can get that callup, but when it happens, it happens, and we're just going to keep going out there and trying to pitch well."
Walker was locked in a scoreless duel until the sixth, when Joe Dunigan, Rich Poythress and Denny Almonte delivered consecutive run-scoring hits.
Moises Hernandez, Bobby LaFromboise and Carter Capps combined to keep the Smokies off the board in relief, allowing two hits and striking out three over the final three innings. Capps earned his second save.