Ron Cook: Pirates' Walker gets intentional pass locally
September 20, 2013 8:00 AM
It's no secret that Pirates second baseman Neil Walker is a fan favorite because of his local ties.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
We beat up Pedro Alvarez without giving it a second thought. If the Pirates are struggling to score runs, it has to be Pedro's fault, right? He chases too many breaking balls. He strikes out too much. He goes weeks between hot streaks. Heck, he wears his ball cap funny.
It is much harder to come down on Neil Walker. He is the Pittsburgh Kid, one of own. We are so proud of him for making the big time. We want to see him succeed. So what if he has been struggling at the plate this month as much as Alvarez? We are too busy rooting for him to criticize him.
"Do people here give me a little bit of a break? Probably," Walker said Thursday. "I have a lot of connections in this town. I've made a lot of relationships ...
"It bothers me that they don't give Pedro the same break."
This was after Alvarez and Walker had big games in the Pirates' streak-busting 10-1 win against the San Diego Padres at PNC Park. Neither had a hit in the first three games of the series, all losses. Alvarez was hitting .161 in September with nine hits and 15 strikeouts when he homered in the fourth inning to break a 1-1 tie. It was his 34th home run, tied for most in the National League. Walker topped Alvarez, going 4 for 5 with a home run and three RBIs. He came in hitting .138 in September and had just two hits in his previous 36 at-bats.
Walker said he appreciates the support, but it makes his job only marginally easier. He grew up here and has seen the city's best take criticism. Ben Roethlisberger gets it despite leading the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins and an appearance in a third. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin take it despite putting their name on the Stanley Cup.
"The expectations for athletes in this town are extremely high," Walker said. "I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing. It's just the way it is ...
"Early on, you hear it more. You hear everybody who says, 'You stink.' But the longer you play, the more you realize you have to block it out. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. If you pay attention to it or worry about it, it's going to make a tough job that much tougher."
Walker, like most pros, is his harshest critic. He flatly said, "If you just look at the numbers, this has not been a good year for me." His .252 batting average is down from .280 last season, his 11 home runs and 48 RBIs down from 14 and 69.
But if you think that is ruining Walker's summer -- the greatest baseball summer around here since he was 6 -- you are wrong.
"The numbers are the furthest thing from my brain," Walker said. "I know they have something to do with our results, but I'm more focused on doing whatever I can to help this team win. Especially in the two-hole, I'm trying to get on base and set the table for our lineup. It can be getting runners over or hitting-and-running or making a play in the field."
No one was happier than Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to see Walker's bust-out day. The team did nothing offensively in 2-0, 5-2 and 3-2 losses to the Padres. The two runs Tuesday came only because Padres right fielder Kyle Blanks fell down while chasing a line drive by Marlon Byrd.
"I know Neil has been working hard to tighten things up," Hurdle said. "Today was a big step forward for him."
Walker said he didn't feel any different at the plate Thursday.
"I just worry about my preparation and approach. Am I hitting the ball on the barrel? I feel like I've been doing that even if I don't have the results to show for it."
Walker's strategy is a good one: Ignore the numbers and keep hacking.
"I've grinded really hard this year. I'm going to keep grinding. I think that's a reflection of the type of player I am."
No one will remember Walker's September struggles -- or Alvarez's, for that matter --if he finishes the regular season strong. The Pirates play their final home series this weekend against the Cincinnati Reds, the biggest series in PNC Park history. We said that about a five-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals in late-July, but it's really true this time. The Pirates are one game behind the Cardinals and one game ahead of the Reds in the National League Central Division race.
"We've played so many games here late in the season that have been non-meaningful games. It's awfully easy to start counting down the days until the end of the season. That's a bad feeling.
"This is different. This weekend will be the type of baseball we've been waiting to play for a long, long time. I think we're ready."
Walker said he knows he's ready. That's his story and he's sticking to it. He's not going to let the numbers get in the way and change his mind.