Mets starting pitcher Taijuan Walker delivers against the Nationals in...

Mets starting pitcher Taijuan Walker delivers against the Nationals in the first inning at Nationals Park on Thursday in Washington. Credit: Getty Images/Rob Carr

WASHINGTON — Alongside the bunches of quick outs, the adept fielding of his position and the lowering of his left shoulder into Juan Soto during a bizarre play in the fourth inning, Taijuan Walker’s seven shutout innings Thursday in which he allowed only three hits featured a certain tactical highlight: an unexpectedly common — and effective — curveball.

Walker’s curve, in his career and especially this year, is mostly an afterthought. But heading into what became a 4-1 Mets win over the Nationals, his goal was to throw at least eight of them. That would make it one out of every 10 pitches, one or two an inning. Nothing too crazy, but a piece of the game within the game with himself, pseudo-throwaway pitches that would make his other offerings look better, he thought.

As he cruised through Washington’s lineup, however, he realized: That curveball was working pretty darn well. He doubled his goal by totaling 16 — six of which turned into routine outs — on a day when he didn’t much touch his signature slider.

That helped Walker to by far the best start of his weird season, which included a stint on the injured list last month for a shoulder issue and pitching exclusively against the Phillies until this outing.

“I feel like when I throw a lot of curveballs, at least 8-10 a game, other stuff plays better. It just slows them down,” he said. “I was throwing it for strikes, getting ground balls, getting swings and misses and stuff. So we kept throwing it.”

And the Mets kept winning. They are 22-11, with a 9-0-1 series record — the only team that has not lost a series. The Nationals are 11-22.

Mark Canha provided the bulk of the offense, going 3-for-4 with a two-run single in the first and a solo homer in the ninth. The latter was more satisfying, he said, because the former was merely a soft line drive looped to leftfield against righthander Joan Adon (3 2/3 innings, three runs).

 

Adon walked five of his first 10 batters. Canha’s single was the only time the Mets capitalized.

“That [first] inning kind of encapsulates what we do as an offense,” Canha said. “We put together good at-bats and we try to wear you down.”

Walker, meanwhile, cruised, pitching to contact and finishing with only 85 pitches. He struck out one and walked one. Had he been fully built up, he might have pitched longer. But this was his first time pitching past the fifth inning.

The closest Walker came to danger was an unusual play in the fourth, when the Nationals ran into two outs — both at third base.

Soto was on second when Josh Bell sent a grounder to third baseman Luis Guillorme. For some reason, Soto tried to go to third but got caught in a rundown and wound up tagged out by Walker. As he tried to slide into third, he came up short, sliding into Walker instead. Walker applied the tag by lowering his left (non-throwing) shoulder into Soto, who yelled at him and third-base umpire Tripp Gibson, looking for an interference call. Walker yelled back.

“It’s like an eclipse, trying to get through him at third base,” Showalter said. “Two good bodies. I like our chances with Walk there. In a collision.”

Walker said: “It was unexpected. I got a little mad because it was a rundown and I didn’t think he was going to slide into me. Smart play, I guess . . . But in the moment I wasn’t too happy about it.”

The play was only half over. As Bell advanced to second, Walker flung the ball into rightfield. When Bell tried to get to third, rightfielder Starling Marte threw it back to third base, where shortstop Francisco Lindor caught it and tagged Bell (while Soto remained on the ground near the bag).

“That’s a play where you had to go get a coat on after,” Showalter said of Marte’s contribution. “I got chill bumps watching him.”

Walker downplayed his use of a heating pad on his back between innings, saying he was “just staying warm.” Showalter characterized it as “nothing that kept him from pitching.”

“A little tight but it was nothing serious,” Walker said. “I felt good. Body felt — everything else felt good, arm felt good. It [was] nothing serious.”

Taijuan Walker's pitch selection in his seven shutout innings:

Four-seam fastball: 29
Splitter: 18
Curveball: 16
Cutter: 10
Sinker: 6
Slider: 6

Total: 85

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