The Pirates took the lawn Monday night at PNC Park with a share of the best record in baseball. They played the American League West Division-leading Oakland Athletics in what some actually called a possible World Series preview. Much to Neil Walker's regret, they did it without Neil Walker.
Here the Pirates are, truly having the best season of his life, and Walker, a hometown kid, likely is headed to the disabled list again. He missed his second consecutive game with what he and the team described as discomfort in his right side. He said he felt something like a cramp when he swung at a pitch from the Chicago Cubs' Edwin Jackson in the third inning Saturday and left the game two innings later.
"We're going to give it another 24 hours and see what happens," Walker said outside the clubhouse after getting treatment. "The good thing is I don't think this is as progressive as some of the other guys who have had it. Nothing popped. I talked to [Jose Tabata] and [Starling] Marte and they had it and they said it hurt them to go to the bathroom, to cough, to even breathe heavily. I haven't had any of those symptoms."
What Walker does feel is a pinch when he swings left-handed. He said there is no problem when he swings right-handed, but, unfortunately for him, he gets most of his at-bats from the left side. It's hard to imagine Pirates management taking a chance of further injury with him, especially with the way the schedule is.
"We have an off day Thursday and then four days off next week for the All-Star break," Walker said. "If I do have to go on the DL, you're only talking about 10 games. I don't want to miss any games, but I feel like I'll be more important to this team in August and September."
Walker knows what it's like to miss important late-season games. "Nothing is worse." He played in just eight of the final 35 games in 2012 because of a back injury, his absence a big part of the Pirates' 16-36 crawl to the finish line, one of the worst collapses in baseball history. This season, he was on the disabled list in late April and early May, missing 14 games after his right index finger was sliced by the spike of St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma. The gash required six stitches to close.
"It seems like this all started when I dislocated my [right pinkie] finger last season and had to miss three games [in mid-August]," Walker said. "I've had my share of freak injuries. I guess that's kind of fitting with the way I play. I grind out at-bats. I grind out plays in the field. I do the dirty things. Breaking up double plays and staying on the turn at second. You do those things enough, you're going to get hurt once in a while."
Walker's pride also has taken a beating this season. It's funny, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington often has described Walker as an offensive second baseman without the greatest range in the field. But Walker has been superb on defense this season. It's his offense that has declined. Garrett Jones has been the only bigger disappointment, based on expectations. Walker is hitting just .244 with six home runs and 26 RBIs after batting .280 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs in 2012. His OPS is .731, down from .768 a year ago.
"It's been a strange year," Walker said. "I've bounced around the lineup. I just haven't caught fire yet. I did for maybe for five or six games when we played Milwaukee and Detroit and then came back home to play Detroit again. That's about it. But I usually get hot in July and August. That's why I want to get this [side] thing taken care of. I definitely feel like it's coming for me."
Even though Walker has struggled at the plate, he makes the Pirates a much better team when he's in the lineup. Brandon Inge started the past two games at second base. He took a .190 average into the game Monday night after going 0 for 4 Sunday against the Cubs.
"I feel like I'm an integral part of the team," Walker said. "I feel like I'm the leader of the infield and somebody the team can count on. But it's hard to be a leader when you can't help the team. That's why I want to get this behind me and get back to playing."
Walker's pains have been eased by the Pirates' amazing success. He grew up in Gibsonia and was 7 in 1992 when the Pirates previously had a winning team and made the playoffs. He said these Pirates are better than last season's team, which was 63-47 on August 9 before that epic collapse.
"It definitely feels like our success this year has been more business as usual," Walker said. "I feel like we're fully loaded and fully stocked. I think people are more aware of the talent we have and how it doesn't feel like we're playing above our skis. We've had a lot of challenges with injuries, especially with our pitching staff. I think we've punched back as well as we could have to this point. To me, that's a telltale sign of how far we've come and where we'll be at the end of the year."
Do you get the idea Walker would be thrilled if that Pirates-Athletics matchup comes off in the World Series?
Actually, Walker would be thrilled to play anyone.
Emphasis on play.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. First Published July 9, 2013 4:00 AM