WASHINGTON — Neil Walker did not start Saturday against the Washington Nationals, one day after lower back spasms had eased enough to allow him to return to the lineup, but he and manager Clint Hurdle said the day off was part of the plan to keep him healthy.
"Our goal is to keep him on the field the rest of the season," Hurdle said.
Walker has played through back problems before, he said, and scheduling rest prevented the spasms from returning.
"I feel almost completely back to normal," he said.
The spasms, he said, are gone. The rest is intended to make sure they don't return.
"The best remedy is to let everything calm down," he said.
Hurdle said he expected to start Walker today, Monday and Tuesday before giving him Wednesday off. Combined with the scheduled off day Thursday, Walker would have 48 hours of rest before the Pirates began a series on the road against the Milwaukee Brewers.
The other starting middle infielder, Jordy Mercer, did not start Saturday. Tightness in his right forearm kept him out for a second day in a row.
"He felt better [Saturday]," Hurdle said. "We feel confident that he would be able to return well within 15 days [the minimum disabled list trip]. You want to take care of the player, and I think we are."
Mercer pinch-hit Friday, but bunted rather taking a full swing.
Asked after the game if Mercer could take a full swing, Hurdle said, "We're trying to use him as smart as we can."
Cole's return poses dilemma
Gerrit Cole will return to the rotation soon, Hurdle said Saturday, but the coaching staff and the front office still must determine whom to remove when Cole comes off the DL.
Assistant general manager Kyle Stark watched Cole's rehabilitation outing Friday night with Class AAA Indianapolis, when Cole pitched seven scoreless innings. He allowed five hits, walked one, struck out three and threw 92 pitches, which was likely the most important statistic. The Pirates wanted him to increase his pitch count after he threw a maximum of 81 pitches in his three previous rehabilitation starts.
Whether the Pirates move a starter to the bullpen or send someone to the minors depends, Hurdle said, on who they replace with Cole.
"The guys that we're talking about, I don't believe any of them have pitched in the bullpen with any regularity," Hurdle said. "That doesn't mean that can't happen."
Cole has been on the DL since July 5 because of pain in the right latissimus dorsi muscle of his back.
Andrew McCutchen hit and ran the bases Saturday, but Hurdle was not sure if McCutchen would return by Tuesday when his 15-day DL stint because of an avulsion fracture to his rib expires.
"He wants to add some velocity and some spin, breaking balls, hard sliders, ramp up the velocity on the fastball off the machine, continue to work along those lines," Hurdle said.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.