The Mets had some modest hopes when they signed Taijuan Walker – the only team to even offer him a contract.
They wanted him to be a solid option for the bottom of the rotation. They hoped the injuries that plagued him in 2018 and 2019 wouldn’t follow him to Flushing. And they held out that his COVID-shortened 2020 season, the one where he compiled a 2.70 ERA over 11 starts, wasn't a fluke.
What they didn’t expect, maybe, was a resurgence of a pitcher that was once considered one of the top prospects in the sport, and an absolute anchor on a rotation that’s dealt with injuries significant enough to unmoor any team. But that’s what they got, and it was never more evident than it was on Tuesday in the Mets 3-2 win over the Cubs at Citi Field.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason and the Mets being my only offer, I think it was destiny for me to be here," Walker said, the team’s MVP belt draped over his shoulder. "I’m glad the Mets were my only offer."
The feeling is mutual, and Tuesday’s game was more proof of it. Walker allowed a two-run homer in the third and, with the help of some solid ninth-inning fundamentals, the Mets were able to hold on.
Up by one and with Seth Lugo pitching in the ninth, Wilson Contreras singled with one out and Eric Sogard hit a deep single to right-center. Third-base coach Willie Harris inexplicably sent pinch runner Jake Marisnick from first, but Luis Guillorme easily gunned him down at home on a relay from Kevin Pillar. Jason Heyward walked but Lugo, closing because Edwin Diaz had pitched three times in the last four days, then struck out Sergio Alcantara for the seventh six-out save of his career.
"It just makes you proud," Luis Rojas said of the play at the plate. "I’m just happy that the guys maintained the fundamentals the way we did in practice…I’m proud and all the coaches are proud of these guys for how they carry out the fundamentals to make a difference in these games."
This is the first time the Mets have been nine games over .500 since the end of the 2019 season. It was their seventh win in the last nine games and they’ve been in first place since May 8, their longest stretch in first since 2015.
And Walker, who came into the game with the seventh-best ERA in the majors, made easy work of the first-place Cubs, allowing two runs on five hits with no walks and a career-high 12 strikeouts over seven innings. He got his 600th strikeout and put together his ninth ever game of 10 strikeouts or more, with the last one coming in 2017. His only mistake was in the third, when his 93-mph slider caught the heart of the plate and Javier Baez deposited it in left-center for a two-run homer.
The Mets got it back in the bottom of the inning on Pete Alonso’s two-run single.
They took the lead in the fifth, Jonathan Villar stroked a one-out single against starter Alec Mills, and Francisco Lindor followed with a single of his own, this time, off reliever Rex Brothers. Brothers walked Dom Smith (and nearly beaned him in the process), and Alonso hit a sacrifice fly to left for the 3-2 lead.
Meanwhile, Walker continued what’s been a career-best start to his season. Going into the game, his ERA (2.07), WHIP (1.03) and strikeout percentage (24.9%) are his best through 11 starts. The Mets have won 10 of the 12 games he’s pitched. His ERA actually increased to 2.12 after Tuesday’s start, while his WHIP went down to 1.00. The accomplishment is made more impressive by the fact that Walker was battling a stomach bug this week, Rojas said.
"At the beginning of the game his body language was kind of weird, kind of low energy and next thing you know he’s the same Walker we see every outing and he goes seven strong innings," Rojas said. "We hit the jackpot with this guy. He’s been outstanding for us."
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