Taijuan Walker deserved better. On most nights, against most teams and most pitchers, he would have gotten better.
But he was facing the defending champion Dodgers, and a starter, Walker Buehler, whom Mets manager Luis Rojas had described as “electric.” So, Walker did not leave Citi Field a winner on Saturday night. No, he left the ballpark just as frustrated as the rest of his teammates, who had lost a second straight 10th-inning game, this one by the score of 2-1.
Walker had deployed a devastating splitter to keep the Dodgers hitless over 6 ¹/₃ innings. For a while, everyone was dreaming the improbable dream. Could Walker become the second Met ever — and the first since Johan Santana in 2012 — to throw a no-hitter?
“Man, he was nasty,” Michael Conforto said.
Nasty enough for Walker to start thinking about his shot at greatness in the fifth inning.
“You see the scoreboard and stuff,” he said. “I wanted to keep going out there doing what I was doing.”
Unlike Santana, Walker was not hired by the Mets to be some historic figure. He arrived in February with a career record of 35-34. He was a good pitcher, not a great one, a veteran who could give you an honest day’s work and a fair-and-square chance to win a ballgame. He made his first All-Star team this year, in his ninth season, and at $23 million over two years, he looked like one of the best signings in the sport.
But Walker had lost his past four decisions, falling from 7-3 to 7-7. In fact, he hadn’t won a game since July 3. His fade was best defined by his bizarre fielding decision against the Pirates last month, when he turned Kevin Newman’s swinging bunt with the bases loaded into a misadventure of epic proportions.
That tragicomedy was not on Walker’s mind Saturday night. On Friday, word came down that his teammate, Jacob deGrom, would be shut down for at least another two weeks. DeGrom hasn’t pitched since July 7, and it’s conceivable he won’t pitch again in the regular season.
Walker knew his team needed not just an emotional lift, but a physical one, too. The Mets had lost a tough one Friday, and the Phillies and Braves both won Saturday, securing their shared claim to first place. Walker knew he had to be the Walker of the first three months of the season, and not the diminished starter he’d been for the better part of six weeks.
“Yeah, we’ve got to step up every single start now,” he said. “It’s tough hearing that [deGrom] news, just in the clubhouse and everywhere. But we’ve got to do our job and go out there and try to go deep into games and just pick him up while he recovers. And I hope he comes back soon.”
He responded with a vengeance, too, in front of the biggest Citi Field crowd of the year. The Dodgers kept swinging over that splitter, and people everywhere who care about the Mets kept thinking that maybe, just maybe, this night would be one for the books.
Walker engaged his former teammate, Billy McKinney, in a spirited battle to open the sixth, with the Mets holding a 1-0 lead on Conforto’s homer in the fourth. The count was 2-2 when McKinney fouled off four straight pitches (two splitters and two four-seamers) and inspired the Mets’ starter and his catcher, Tomas Nido, to give him a different look. Walker ripped off a back-door slider, and McKinney didn’t have a prayer.
After Walker walked Walker Buehler (say that quickly five times), he got Trea Turner to bounce into a double play. Nine outs out to go. Max Muncy lifted a harmless fly to open the seventh. Eight outs to go. Will Smith stepped in, just as he had in the 10th the previous night, right before he sent a Jeurys Familia sinker sailing over the left-field wall.
The Dodgers catcher took the first pitch, a fastball for a strike. He didn’t take the second pitch. “Just a bad slider,” Walker said. Smith crushed it 444 feet to left center, and that was that. The no-hitter and the shutout were going, going, gone.
Of course, Walker was a bit deflated. What human being in that situation wouldn’t be? He surrendered a hard double to Corey Seager, buckled down to beat AJ Pollock for his eighth and final strikeout, then walked Chris Taylor before Rojas came out to get him.
Walker headed for the dugout to a loud ovation. The fans were acknowledging the obvious in a world without a healthy deGrom:
If the Mets are to stay in this NL East race, Walker must keep pitching as he did on a lost Saturday night that could have been remembered forever.
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