CHICAGO -- Neil Walker said his sore lower back felt better Friday morning before the Pirates played the Chicago Cubs, the 16th consecutive game in which Walker has not started.
Walker took batting practice before the game to gauge his availability and pinch-hit, batting right-handed, in the sixth inning. He struck out swinging.
Walker had two consecutive days off from hitting Wednesday and Thursday. He said his back felt sore after he started to take swings left-handed about a week ago and again after he participated in Jeff Karstens' simulated game Tuesday in Cincinnati.
"The day after those events were the big days for me and I didn't feel great after doing both of those," Walker said. "You just go by how you feel."
The two back specialists Walker consulted told him that once the inflammation was gone, Walker could resume strengthening the area, Walker said. Walker has focused on strengthening and stretching his core and leg muscles.
"We're close now," Walker said. "With a back issue I want to be very, very sure of myself."
Rod Barajas entered a game Friday hitting .176 with a .244 on-base percentage and .230 slugging percentage since Aug. 1. He had one home run in that span. Manager Clint Hurdle continued to play Barajas, he said, because of his impact on the pitching staff.
"We're just going to be as smart as we can, make as many good moves as we can and get offense when we can get out there but be respective of getting the job done behind the plate," Hurdle said.
Barajas has caught A.J. Burnett, with whom he played in Toronto with the Blue Jays in 2008, all season. Since the acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez in late July, Rodriguez's performance has been better when pitching to Barajas, Hurdle said.
The idea of removing Barajas from the lineup to regroup for a few days, similar to what Hurdle did with Clint Barmes earlier this season, had come up, Hurdle said, but Barajas' effect on the pitching staff is also valuable. The Pirates use a program that evaluates how many innings and pitches a particular pitcher throws, how the pitcher performs with runners in scoring position and the speed at which a pitcher works based on who is behind the plate.
"There's no perfect equation for all of it, but if you use your eyes and rely upon some numbers, there are other things to read into besides the catcher's batting average," Hurdle said.
Despite their recent losing streak, the Pirates have remained loose, and still feel good about their chances for a turnaround.
"We're not losing our confidence," Garrett Jones said. "We're not losing our edge. I think everybody knows that its baseball sometimes. Things aren't going to go your way all the time."
Jones diagnosed the team's issue over the past couple of weeks as a lack of execution, especially when it comes to scoring runs.
"Just doing the little things that we need to do to win ball games," he said. "We've had a lot of one, two-run games we've lost. A lot of that's just coming down to execution."
Pedro Alvarez, who was scratched from the lineup Wednesday because of right wrist pain, returned to the lineup Friday, batting seventh, against left-handed Chris Rusin.