On any other day, Pirates second baseman Neil Walker would have been the happiest man at the ballpark. He went 5 for 5 Sunday for the second time in his big league career, hit a home run, scored four runs and drove in two. The Pirates crushed the San Francisco Giants, 13-2, to hit the All-Star break in first place in the National League Central Division.
But this wasn't just another day at PNC Park. Paul Foltz was in the house, thanks to Dream Foundation, which makes wishes come true for adults facing a life-threatening illness. He's 70 and lives near Tampa, Fla., but grew up in Evans City, Butler County, and said he has been a Pirates fan for 64 years. Ten operations for colon cancer haven't gotten him anything better than a prognosis of less than a year to live. His wish was to get to a ballgame in Pittsburgh so he could meet Walker, who nearly brought him to tears by posing for pictures with him and giving him an autographed bat and ball outside of the team's clubhouse.
"I played second base like him back in Evans City," Foltz would say later. "They called me, 'Butch,' back then. I was pretty good, but not as good as [Walker]."
Few second basemen in baseball are these days.
Start with Walker's defense. "You look at him and he's incredibly reliable," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has said. Going into Sunday, Walker had handled more chances (397) than any second baseman in the big leagues. He was tied for sixth in fielding percentage (.990) and tied for sixth in fewest errors (4). He made a really nice play in the fourth inning Sunday to take a hit from Giants third baseman Pedro Sandoval, going far to his right to backhand a groundball and throw across his body to get an out.
But it's Walker's offense that is sizzling. His first-inning double extended his hitting streak to a team-best 12 games. Four hits later, his season average had climbed to .291, up from .256 when the streak started. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) has jumped to .774 from .668. He batted .489 in the past 12 games with 8 doubles, 11 RBIs and 15 runs scored. It's no coincidence the Pirates went 10-2 in those games.
"I predicted 5 for 5 for you this morning," Foltz told Walker.
"You're welcome at any of our games," Walker said, grinning.
It has been an amazing offensive turnaround, not just for Walker, but for all of the Pirates. They combined to hit .218 in April and May with 38 home runs and 147 runs scored. They hit .268 in June with 39 home runs and 146 runs. They have showed no signs of cooling off in July. They had 17 hits Sunday, including the home run by Walker and two more by MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen.
"From my standpoint, it's about keeping my brain away from what I call 'Negative Town,' " Walker said. "It doesn't go there anymore. The longer you play this game, the easier it is to deal with the tough times. I don't care if I'm slumping or kicking the ball around in the field or we're losing three or four games in a row. I'm not going to get down on myself or this team.
"I think I'm as optimistic a person and a player as I can be. But the first couple of months when we were struggling, I was up there trying to hit doubles and drive in runs. After a while, you realize you just have to let the game come to you. If you slow it down and don't chase pitches and just do what you're comfortable doing, you're going to be successful. For me, that means driving the ball to the middle of the field."
Walker has been a big part of the Pirates' surge, not just in the past 12 games, but since May 25 when they were 20-24, in fourth place in the division, five games out of first. Don't look now but they are 11 games over .500 at 48-37. That's a 28-13 run in the past 41 games.
What's really neat for Walker is that the Pirates' success is happening in his hometown. He's not hearing much talk these days about the 19 consecutive years of losing that the franchise has endured. He doesn't have to put on a disguise when he goes to Giant Eagle or Starbucks.
"It really is special. It's exciting," Walker said. "I think people have been craving this type of baseball for as long as I can remember."
Count Foltz among 'em.
His daughter/caregiver, Lynn, said the Pirates' success has been a big lift for her dad. Certainly, the chance to get to PNC Park to see a game and meet Walker kept him going the past few months.
"I'm a very fortunate man," Foltz told Walker. "It's an honor for me to meet you. You are such a great representative of the Pirates."
Now, Foltz is focused on October.
"You're going to the World Series," he told Walker.
"I'm ready, sir," Walker said.
"I'll be rooting for you every step of the way," Foltz said.
There have been a lot of great moments at PNC Park this season. Darned if I can think of one better than that.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.