TEMPE, Ariz.–When Jordan Walden entered the game yesterday for an inning of relief, nearly 20 fellow Angels crowded behind the plate to see what number would flash on the radar gun.
Walden, who struggled last year for Double-A Arkansas before being shut down with a strained forearm, had yet to throw a pitch in a spring training game after he tweaked his hamstring shortly before the start of minor league camp.
Walden's first pitch alleviated any concerns about his arm strength: 98 mph.
He retired the side on a groundout, a pop out and a fly out, hitting 98 mph four more times and never throwing a fastball slower than 96.
He'll also have to get used coming out of the bullpen, as the Angels have made the 22-year-old righthander a full-time reliever.
"A lot of times when you put starters in the ‘pen, you’ll see that three mile an hour, four mile an hour jump," Arkansas pitching coach Ken Patterson said. "We saw it today, and imagine when you turn on the lights. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him sit 97 to 100, 101. When you’re throwing that hard right now, in your first game, that’s impressive."
"He threw one good game at Frisco last year where he sat in the 93-96 range the whole game," Patterson said. "He threw an outstanding game, and then it just seemed like that outing took a lot out of him. The next couple outings kind of slid a little bit, and then he was like, 'Man, it’s bothering me,' so that was it and we shut him down."
In making quick work of Oakland's Double-A club, Walden didn't need to throw more than a dozen pitches, but he was able to mix in a pair of low-80s sliders. According to Patterson, the progress of Walden's slider has been perhaps the most impressive thing he's seen in the bullpen sessions that he's been able to throw this spring.
"He cut a couple loose," Patterson said. "It’s kind of a slurvy slider-type thing. It was good—it had a lot of depth on it. If he builds on it, if he gets better from there, it’s going to be exciting to watch him pitch all year."
Walden still needs to repeat his delivery more frequently and, in turn, refine his command, but the move to the bullpen should reduce the need for him to develop a reliable third pitch. Still, while a tantalizing high-90s fastball might be tempting to try to push to the big leagues, the Angels plan to cautiously ease Walden into his new role.
"It’s going to be one outing, if he throws 20 pitches or something, he might have to have two days off," Patterson said. "Let him work into how to be a reliever, condition his arm to being come back on just a day’s rest maybe, and then hopefully by the end of the year if he’s doing good in the role, in August we can get him a couple back-to-back days and see if he’ll be able to respond."
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