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Phillies vs. Cubs: Taijuan Walker bounces back to help take series against Chicago

Walker bounces back as Phillies take series against Cubs originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Rob Thomson couldn’t have known what to expect when Taijuan Walker walked to the mound at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday afternoon. After all, the free agent right-hander has been a coin flip all season. He’s either been pretty good or he’s been pretty bad.

The Phillies manager did have a pretty good idea what Walker could do to rig the outcome in his favor, though.

“Get in the zone,” he said before the 2-1 win over the Cubs. “I think the starts he’s had that he’s struggled, he’s walked people. And that’s not him throughout his career. So he’s got to get in the zone and force weak contact. Usually, if he’s doing that and the split’s working, it’s going to be weak contact.”

For the statistically inclined, Walker had made four starts in which he pitched at least six innings and allowed three or fewer runs. In those games, he averaged 1.5 walks per nine innings and had a 2.59 ERA. In his other five starts, in which his ERA was 12.18, he averaged 7.9 walks per nine.

Walker got in the zone Sunday. He pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings, giving up just two singles. And while he walked three, he also threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 19 batters he faced. Weak contact? The Cubs managed to get only five balls out of the infield against him.

He probably could have gone deeper but, since he’s not accustomed to pitching on short rest, Thomson had him on a limit of somewhere around 90 pitches. He threw 87.

Get in the zone. It seems so simple. There’s a probably apocryphal baseball story about the old pitching coach who’d go to the mound and bark at his pitcher, “Throw strikes. Babe Ruth’s dead.”

Of course, if it was that easy, Walker wouldn’t have struggled as much as he has at times this season.

Walker was able to start Sunday only because he was knocked out so early the previous Wednesday at San Francisco: 40 pitches, only 21 of them strikes, in two-thirds of an inning. So he was all in favor of coming back on three days rest. The adjustments he made in the meantime were both mental and physical.

“Honestly, I just wanted to attack the zone (Sunday),” he said. “My last outing, I didn’t attack the zone too much. Got behind a lot. This time I just wanted to fill it up. Just be more aggressive in the zone.”

He also tweaked his delivery during a bullpen session on Friday.

“I thought I was a little too hunched over and this time I was able to stand more tall, like I was previously, and to stay in line more,” he said. “Obviously, it sucks not to make it out of the first inning but I knew what it was and I was able to fix it in this game.”

Walker’s strong outing allows the Phillies to take a deep breath. He came into the game with a 6.53 ERA. Yes, it’s still early. But that also meant he was only two months into a four-year, $72 million contract. If he didn’t turn himself around, the Phillies couldn’t afford to take him out of the rotation, probably couldn’t trade him and would have had a much steeper mountain to climb trying to defend their National League championship.

“He was really good,” Thomson said approvingly after the game. “Especially coming off his last outing in San Francisco.  He had three walks but his strike-to-ball ratio (55-32) was pretty good. I’m sure he wanted to perform and he did. Filled up the strike zone and did what he normally does.”

The Phillies open a three-game series against the Diamondbacks Monday night at Citizens Bank Park with LHP Tommy Henry (1-1, 5.00) facing Phillies RHP Zack Wheeler (3-3, 4.06) at 6:40.

On Tuesday it will be RHP Ryne Nelson (1-2, 5.48) vs. a to-be-announced Phillies pitcher. That could well be a bullpen game.

In the finale on Wednesday, RHP Zac Gallen (6-2, 2.95) will go against LHP Ranger Suarez (0-1, 10.50).