CINCINNATI — The Mets have needed an ace with their two highest-profile pitchers on the injured list, and Taijuan Walker has filled the role nicely.
Simply, the right-hander has been every bit the force the Mets received in last year’s first half, when he represented the team at the All-Star Game in Colorado. His body of work suggests he belongs in the conversation to repeat as a National League All-Star, in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Walker flexed his muscle again Monday night. Save for an early home run allowed to Brandon Drury, he manhandled the Reds lineup in the Mets’ 7-4 victory at Great American Ball Park. The win was the Mets’ second straight and third in four games following their first three-game losing streak of the season.
Over six innings, Walker allowed three earned runs on four hits with nine strikeouts and one walk. His ERA rose to 2.86, which ranks ninth in the NL. Walker has pitched at least six innings in each of his last six starts and only once this season has he allowed more than four earned runs in a start. Over his last 11 starts he owns a 2.53 ERA, carrying the load with Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer on the IL. Scherzer is scheduled to return Tuesday night for his first start since May 18.
“I think [Walker] has been awesome,” said Dominic Smith, who delivered a two-run double in the sixth that helped the Mets extend their lead. “He’s just showing what he showed us last year when he was an All-Star. It’s something he’s capable of doing and I know with our dogs out and our big horses out he’s definitely trying to put us on his back and show us the reason he was an All-Star.”
Walker was asked how his first half of this season compares to the same stretch last year.
“I think about the same,” he said. “I just feel like things are more consistent this year, with all my pitches, I feel good, healthy.”
Buck Showalter was happy to receive six innings from Walker in the stifling humidity. Walker worked a perfect sixth and then watched Drew Smith, Colin Holderman and Seth Lugo survive the next three.
“Tai has been on a good roll for a while,” Showalter said. “I thought he was challenged a little bit. The next two days are going to be really challenging heat-wise, the heat index and sometimes you have a little bit different feel to your body and he got through it. That last inning was big for us because we didn’t have four pitchers in the bullpen today.”
Francisco Lindor’s solo homer in the fifth gave the Mets a 4-3 lead against Hunter Greene. The blast was Lindor’s 13th of the season, second on the Mets to Pete Alonso’s 22 homers. Lindor worked the count full before pulling a 100 mph fastball into the right-field seats. It was something of a strenuous inning for Greene, who needed 12 pitches to retire Brandon Nimmo leading off the frame.
Nimmo’s three-run homer in the second inning gave the Mets a 3-0 advantage. Mark Canha was hit by a pitch in the inning and Tomas Nido singled before Nimmo jumped on a first-pitch slider and reached the right-field seats. Nimmo’s homer was his sixth of the season.
The Mets extended their lead in the sixth on Smith’s two-run double against lefty Reiver Sanmartin. Smith, who entered the night with a .487 OPS this season against lefties, has provided the Mets with punch in recent days and since returning from a stint with Triple-A Syracuse. In the seventh, Eduardo Escobar — who went homerless for the first time in four games — stroked an RBI single that sunk the Reds in a 7-3 hole.
Drury, a former Mets utilityman, continued his impressive first half with a three-run homer in the third inning that tied it 3-3. The homer was only the fourth allowed by Walker this season and first since June 7 in San Diego. Entering play Walker was third in the major leagues (among pitchers with at least 70 innings) with a ratio of 0.35 homers allowed per nine innings.
The Mets won their 50th game — and won’t reach the midway point of their season until Tuesday.
“That’s obviously a big milestone, so I feel like we have had a good first half,” Nimmo said. “I don’t think anybody would complain about it, but we also know we have places that we can get better … given what’s happened in the first half of the season I think we would be pretty happy if you told us at the beginning of the year, ‘These things are going to happen and you are still going to be at 50 wins or 51 wins at the end of it.’ ”
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