CINCINNATI – On the eve of Max Scherzer’s triumphant return to the Mets rotation, Taijuan Walker offered a reminder that he was quietly the Mets starter who stepped up in the ace’s seven-week absence.
Walker has posted a 2.59 ERA in the nine starts and 55.2 innings since Scherzer went on the injured list, including six quality starts and 49 strikeouts in that span. His dominant 97-pitch outing on Monday helped lead the Mets to a 7-4 win over the Reds in the series opener at Great American Ballpark. The Amazin’s enjoyed their 50th win of the year Monday as the league approaches the midway point of the season.
Scherzer has a 2.54 ERA in eight starts for the Mets this season. When he sustained an oblique strain, the familiar doom-and-gloom attitude briefly returned to the Flushing faithful. But Walker made sure those somber feelings didn’t last.
“Tai has been on a pretty good roll for a while,” Buck Showalter said. “We know how much it means to our team, with some people down, the type of outings he’s having.”
As much as Walker’s results were paramount – like his nine strikeouts against the Reds on Monday – his health was just as important. He consistently took the mound every fifth day in that troublesome stretch where the Mets rotation was forced to weather the storm without their co-aces in Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.
“I just keep within myself,” Walker said. “I don’t want to go out there and do too much – try to take over for Max and Jake, those guys are in a league of their own. I know what I’m capable of and I know what I can do when I’m healthy and feeling good.”
Walker has so far recorded a first half (7-2, 2.86 ERA) that is nearly identical to the All-Star first half that he enjoyed last season (7-3, 2.66 ERA). The right-hander is making a convincing case for a second career All-Star nod. His ERA is top eight in the National League.
Walker, a Los Angeles native, said he thinks he’s done enough to pitch in the July 19 All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium, but he joked that he also wouldn’t mind taking those four days off.
“He’s doing what he showed us last year, when he was an All-Star,” Dominic Smith said of Walker. “I know with our dogs out, our big horses out, he’s definitely trying to put us on his back and show us the reason why he was an All-Star.”
The only blemish in his 14th start Monday was a three-run home run to former Met Brandon Drury, who has an .864 OPS, 17 homers and has been on fire for the Reds. After Drury’s third-inning home run that tied the game at 3-3, Walker bounced back and retired 10 of his final 12 batters. He earned his seventh win of the season, thanks in part to run support from his offense.
Hunter Greene is the hardest throwing starter in MLB right now. (Greene probably has just under a month left to hold that title before Jacob deGrom comes off the injured list and inevitably dethrones him.) Greene didn’t really let it rip until the fifth inning, though, when he turned up the dial on his fastball velocity against the top of the Mets order.
Francisco Lindor fouled off a couple of Greene’s high heaters before connecting on a 100-mph fastball and sending it to the right-field seats in a hurry. Lindor’s solo shot down the first-base line was his 13th home run of the year. The decisive blow broke the 3-3 tied game and gave the Mets the lead.
Smith, hitting eighth as the designated hitter, added on in the sixth inning. Though Smith is still waiting for his first home run of the season (his last was actually at Cincinnati on July 21), he made an impact with extra bases instead. Smith is 4-for-9 since he was called up from Triple-A Syracuse late last month, with three of those four hits falling as doubles.
Smith said he opened up his stance in the past week, which has allowed him to drive the ball with more power.
“He’s hitting with some malice,” Showalter said of Smith. “It’s one thing to have Dom back, it’s another thing for him to be productive. He wasn’t when he left. He is now.”