When Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Taijuan Walker leaves the mound and returns to the clubhouse after a game, he will check his cell phone and find texts from his mother, Nellie Garcia. Those messages are not always filled with the typical high praise a player might expect from a mom.
"She's pretty tough on me, too. She'll give me a lot of crap," Walker said with a smile. "She'll text me like, 'You're going to walk him on four straight pitches?' or 'Really, you're going to give up three runs?' She wants me to be perfect every time.
"I'll get [texts] after the game, during it. I'll come in after I'm done pitching and look at my messages and there will be a long list. Like, 'Really, you can't strike him out right there?' It's fun. And it's motivating. It pisses me off, and she knows, and so it motivates me for next time."
Garcia says she is "very honest" with her Walker, whom she has motivated his entire life through her own struggles. She was a single mother who raised a family of four children. Financial times were so difficult that at one point, the five of them lived and slept in a van for several months. "I think that's what made us so close as a family," Garcia said. "We did it. We worked it."
Garcia definitely worked hard to raise her children. She was a cook for a while before finding a job as a process server in California, delivering divorce papers, subpoenas, foreclosure notices, etc. Despite those job demands, she always found time to cook dinner for her children and also attend all their games in all their sports.
"I don't know how she went from my game to my brother's game to my basketball game to his basketball game to my football game to his football game but she did it," Walker said. "She was Superwoman, pretty much."
Superwoman? In addition to the demands of being a single mother, Garcia was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. She had noticed a lump on her breast but thought it might be just a cyst. She also did not have medical insurance at the time so she did not get the actual diagnosis until the lump and pain had grown considerably. By then, the cancer was already at stage 3.
"If it had been any longer, I don't think the chemo would have helped," she said. "It was real, real close. A life and death situation."
Garcia underwent chemotherapy sessions followed by months of intense radiation treatments that physically drained her. It was a very rough and difficult time. But she never gave in. She eventually beat the disease and has been cancer-free for three years.
Meanwhile, Walker has provided her with some very good outings to comment on this season. The 23-year-old right-hander is 2-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 29 strikeouts and just three walks. He struck out 11, including the final six batters he faced, in a victory over Houston last week. That's a much better beginning to the season than last year when he gave up nine runs in his first start, fell behind batters constantly and was 1-5 with a 7.33 ERA in late May.
"I think that's what helped me a lot, going through that struggle," Walker said. "I had never really struggled like that before in my life, and just going through that, I really learned how to pitch and become a complete pitcher, knowing what I had to get outs and go deep in the game."
Walker improved significantly as the season went on, going 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA the rest of the season while striking out 118 and walking just 17. He's continued that improvement this season, especially on off-speed pitches.
"I came in with a lot of confidence with all my pitches," he said. "One thing I learned is that you have to have more than two pitches to be a successful starter and I worked a lot on my breaking balls."
Walker and fellow Seattle pitching prospects Danny Hultzen and James Paxton were labeled "The Big Three" several years back. The No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, Hultzen has yet to pitch in the majors while injuries have limited him to just eight minor league innings the past three seasons. Injuries also have set back Paxton, who is currently in Triple-A. Meanwhile, Walker is showing real promise that he could The Big One.
"You can see the confidence in his body and the ball coming out of the hand," pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. said "You can always tell when guys are shying away from the zone or their thoughts are in another place. He's the flip side of it. Just the way he's carrying himself. He's a big man and he has big stuff and I want him to wear it and embrace it and I want the hitters to feel it. And he's done that."
Said catcher Chris Iannetta: "It goes back to his work ethic and his ability to be open minded."
In honor of Mother's Day and breast cancer awareness, baseball is having its players wear uniforms with pink logos and numbers Sunday. Walker also honors his mother and her fight every start by drawing the breast cancer ribbon logo on the mound.
"She could have easily given up when she got cancer," Walker said. "The fact that she was a single mother raising four kids, she was always strong and she was there. She was never down. She always made sure we had everything we needed. She worked hard. She got us through.
"Last year when I was struggling, I thought, 'I get to do this for a living. There is no reason for me to give up or pout about it because there are a lot of people who have it harder."'
It's something he learned from his mother, who showed him that throwing strikes in a tight situation is nothing compared to other struggles life can bring.
"I think it affected him a lot," Garcia said of her son's upbringing. "All of my kids had to grow up really fast. They had to be independent, they had to work, wash clothes, clean the house.
"I think just going through that, they appreciate life more."