SEATTLE -- The sample size is growing. So is the confidence.
With seemingly every inning of every start now, Taijuan Walker has shown the progression from top prospect to young, talented starter trying to put it all together, and now to emerging ace. The latest evidence was a 3-1 victory over the Houston Astros on Monday night at Safeco Field in a game that put the Mariners above .500 -- they're 10-9 -- for the first time since they were 2-1.
Walker started well, hit a bump or two, smoothed things out and finished with fury. He pitched a season-high seven innings, struck out a season-high 11 batters, including the last six in a row, in scintillating 1-2-3 sixth and seventh innings. He threw a career-high 118 pitches.
"What can you say?" Mariners manager Scott Servais said. "Awesome, awesome outing. He's finding his stride. He's coming into his own, the type of pitcher he can be. And it's some kind of fun to watch. He really took over the game the last couple of innings he was out there."
But it was more than that.
The Mariners had returned from an encouraging nine-game road trip in which they took two of three in three consecutive series (in New York, Cleveland and Anaheim) after winning only one of their first six home games. It was important to get the momentum rolling again, and they needed someone to look to, someone to rely on.
These days, more and more, Walker is providing that stability, and on Monday, he added some signature brilliance to boot.
His only difficult innings were the second and fifth, and both times he did what he had to do to minimize damage. In the second, a walk and two singles led to Houston taking a 1-0 lead, but Walker struck out Luis Valbuena and Erik Kratz in succession to wiggle out of that jam.
In the fifth, a one-out Kratz bunt single and a Jose Altuve double put runners on second and third. No problem, though. Walker struck out George Springer and induced a ground ball off the bat of Carlos Correa that turned into a highlight-reel play by third baseman Kyle Seager, who stabbed the ball down the line and threw a dart that was picked on a bounce by Adam Lind at first for the third out.
After that? Lights out. Walker struck out Colby Rasmus, Tyler White and Evan Gattis in a 1-2-3 sixth, then Gomez, Valbuena and Kratz in a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his night.
Walker, as fired up as he's been in his Major League career, hopped off the mound and clapped his right hand to his glove while bellowing in elation.
"I just kept being aggressive and going right after them, and it definitely worked out," said Walker, who has a 1.44 ERA, the second-best mark in the month of April in Mariners history for pitchers with four or more starts.
The six consecutive strikeouts equaled the second-most by a Mariners pitcher.
The fact that Walker continues to show that he gets better and stronger as the game goes on is another facet of his game that's vaulting him into the game's elite. Servais didn't hesitate to put him back on the mound for the seventh despite Walker already having 100 pitches.
"He was throwing 96 [mph], struck out three in a row," Servais said. "Why not?"
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.