NEW YORK — All the Phillies cared about with Taijuan Walker Saturday afternoon at Citi Field was receiving length and having him exit the game healthy.
Check and check.
Walker took down seven innings in the Phillies' 4-3 loss to the Mets to begin Saturday's doubleheader. He gave up three runs in the first — a familiar theme — and one more in the second before settling in to throw 106 pitches, putting just three men on base over his final five frames.
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The Phillies went into Saturday needing 24 to 27 innings covered, ideally by pitchers they don't plan to use in the wild-card round. Walker gave them seven and Luis Ortiz, recalled earlier in the day from Triple A, pitched the eighth. Ortiz was optioned to the Phillies' spring training complex in Clearwater after Game 1 to make room for left-hander Michael Plassmeyer, who started Game 2. Nick Nelson is expected to be recalled Sunday morning. Matt Strahm will open for the Phillies in Game 162 and Nelson will follow.
Walker ended his first year with the Phillies 15-6 with a 4.38 ERA. He pitched a career-high 172⅔ innings. The role he fills in the playoffs remains TBD. Zack Wheeler will start Game 1 of the wild-card round and Aaron Nola will start Game 2. If there is a Game 3, it will be Thursday. Walker would be on regular rest by then but Ranger Suarez appears to be the likelier option. It would be all-hands-on-deck in that elimination game anyway, with the starting pitcher potentially going only a few innings.
Walker allowed four runs and lasted just an inning in his only career playoff start, which came for the Diamondbacks at Dodger Stadium in 2017.
"I think it was six years ago," he said. "I got one inning. This is my fourth time going to the playoffs and it's another opportunity to see what I've got, to see what I have in the postseason."
Walker experienced peaks and valleys in his first year as a Phillie. When he exited without completing the first inning in San Francisco on May 17, he had a 6.53 ERA through nine starts. Then the Phillies won 12 of his next 14 starts as he pitched to a 2.74 ERA. Following that hot run, he allowed 24 runs in his next 36 innings before finishing the year with two solid starts against the Mets.
"Lot of ups and downs," he said of his season. "I wasn't as consistent as I wanted to be but I was glad that I was able to come in and give some good innings and make every start. That was a huge goal for me. First year, new team, I felt pretty good about it."
The first inning was a problem for Walker all season long. It's not uncommon for the opening frame to be the most difficult on a starting pitcher, it's why you hear the cliche about needing to get to the good ones early. Walker and the Phillies have tried different methods of warming up. Sometimes it's as simple as the first inning being the only one a pitcher is guaranteed to face the top of the lineup in order.
Walker allowed 24 earned runs in the first inning for a 7.05 ERA. His ERA in all other innings was 3.79. It was a common theme in 2023 that he would stumble early and cause some stirring in the bullpen before finding his groove.
"Those last four innings felt really good, it felt like my mechanics and body were in sync," Walker said. "I'll probably throw a bullpen on Monday, just keep working and see where we're at."
The Phillies nearly came back to win Game 1 Saturday and take Walker off the hook for a loss. They scored twice in the ninth inning and had the tying run, Weston Wilson, at third base with one out. Wilson was called up from Triple A earlier in the day to take Rodolfo Castro's spot on the active roster and went 2-for-4 with an RBI, a run and two stolen bases.
The right-handed Wilson hit 31 homers with 32 stolen bases at Triple A this season. He may actually find his way onto the playoff roster in place of someone like Jake Cave or Cristian Pache. He might serve more of a purpose as an offensive threat off the bench.
"Honestly, we're deep," Walker said. "We have a really good, deep team and you saw it the last couple of games. We didn't really have our starters in there but our bench has been so good. Almost another comeback win today, the other day after the celebration, the next day coming back and winning — for me, it just kind of shows how deep we are.
"Weston coming up today, he's been down there for a month or something, comes up and two hits. We have a lot of good guys, we have some weapons."
The Phillies' primary concern: keeping all those weapons healthy over the next 48 hours.
Six pitchers were used in the Phillies' 11-4 loss in Game 2 of Saturday's doubleheader. Plassmeyer gave up 10 runs and didn't make it out of the fourth inning, but the bullpen pitched well behind him. Jeff Hoffman, Orion Kerkering, Jose Alvarado, Craig Kimbrel and Cristopher Sanchez combined for 5⅓ innings without allowing an earned run, striking out nine. None of them will be used Sunday.