PHILADELPHIA — Taijuan Walker’s experience pitching in front of fans in the regular season over the past three years consists of one inning at the end of 2019.
The right-hander won’t get the complete home-opener experience Thursday, with only about 8,000 fans allowed at Citi Field, but he still anticipates nerves will be a factor for his Mets debut.
“I have just got to slow down the game and can’t be too amped,” Walker said Wednesday before the Mets finished their series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. “Obviously I can use it to my advantage, but I have got to learn just to develop my own pace. It’s something that hurt me when I was younger, and as the game sped up I just kept getting quicker and quicker, so I am just taking it all in.
“Watching a guy like Jake [deGrom], when there is trouble, he really knows how to slow the game down, and that is what you have to do. I feel I have done a pretty good job of that.”
After just three starts in 2018, Walker underwent Tommy John surgery that cost him the remainder of that season and all but one inning in 2019. Last season, he returned to pitch for the Mariners and Blue Jays, but without fans in the ballparks due to the pandemic.
If spring training and the last three days have taught Walker anything, it’s that the Mets have a rabid following.
“They are really passionate, and they care a lot about their team,” said Walker, who arrived on a two-year contract worth $20 million. “It’s actually really good to see. There [were] a lot of Mets fans in Philly, so it’s really nice. [Tuesday] when we had that big inning, just to hear the Mets fans cheering us on, it’s just special, so I can’t wait until [Thursday].”
Walker is on schedule in a sense, even with the series postponement in Washington that began the season. Walker threw four innings (roughly 55 pitches) in a simulated game Saturday, keeping him on normal rest.
“You can throw as many bullpens as you want, but it’s different when you have a hitter in there swinging,” Walker said. “I definitely was lucky I was able to do that. We definitely helped get myself sharp.”
Upon choosing No. 99 with his new team, Walker received a package from Turk Wendell — the last Mets player to wear that number. Wendell sent Walker a turkey spurs necklace, wild boar’s tooth, licorice and toothbrush. Walker hinted in spring training he might wear the necklace on the mound, but says he hasn’t yet.
“I am kind of superstitious,” Walker said. “Things have been going good, and if I wear the necklace I don’t want to blame the necklace. I keep it in my locker. I have the licorice in my locker, so it’s going to go with me everywhere I go.”