Walker's blast backs Burres, beats Braves, 3-1
Neil Walker (18) is greeted at home plate by Jose Tabata, left, after his two-run home run in the sixth inning Monday at PNC Park. Garrett Jones, right, was up next.
Right fielder Delwyn Young makes a running catch on a ball hit by the Braves' David Ross.
Starter Brian Burres delivers against the Braves Monday afternoon.
Shortstop Ronny Cedeno misses a tag on the Braves' Nate McLouth Monday afternoon.
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To fully understand what makes Neil Walker's future so promising toward the Pirates' fortunes, it might have been helpful to watch him last week in Milwaukee and Chicago, where he was routinely launching balls over fences while the team lost and lost.
There was minimal reaction. Bases were rounded with the head down. Little was said afterward.
But on this Labor Day afternoon, as the ball left Walker's bat in the sixth inning and sailed into PNC Park's center-field landscaping for a two-run home run that set up a stirring, 3-1 victory against the powerful Atlanta Braves, Walker raised a fist as he rounded first.
"Yeah, just a little," he acknowledged with a grin. "For me, it's all about the team. Always has been. And that felt good, not just for me but for the whole team."
There was plenty of cheer to spread: Brian Burres pitched six strong innings in an emergency start -- one run, five hits --and Walker's shot in the bottom of the sixth brought the 3-1 lead that would make him a winner. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez made a terrific play to quash an Atlanta rally in the seventh. And relievers Chris Resop, Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan tiptoed through trouble to finish it off.
It was, as manager John Russell called it, "a really good all-around game," maybe the Pirates' best in a while considering the Braves' place atop the East Division and their urgency to stave off the Philadelphia Phillies.
Game: Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP James McDonald (2-4, 5.03) vs. RHP Tim Hudson (15-6, 2.30).
Key matchup: Hudson was just National League pitcher of the month for August, going 4-0 with a 1.71 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 42 innings.
Of note: Even amid all this losing, the Pirates are 39-1 when leading after eight innings.
Even with the other efforts, it is difficult not to isolate on Walker, whose home run extended his hitting streak to 13 games, a fresh season high for the team, in which he has batted .403 -- 23 for 57 -- with half of his 10 total home runs, as well as five doubles, two triples and 16 RBIs.
Not really, when it is considered that Walker has yet to have a meaningful slump since arriving May 25 and taking second base by force: He is batting .312 with the 10 home runs and 51 RBIs in just 85 games. And he has yet to go more than three consecutive games without a hit, going that long only twice.
In a broader context, his numbers -- not to mention hitting ESPN-special home runs like the one Monday-- are sure to add credence to contending for National League Rookie of the Year: Among all rookies with at least 300 plate appearances, a low enough figure to include the San Francisco Giants' outstanding Buster Posey, Walker ranks third in batting average behind Posey and the Chicago Cubs' Starlin Castro, fifth in on-base percentage, third in slugging percentage and third in on-base-plus-slugging percentage, an offensive metric that many see as the ultimate. Only Posey and Atlanta's Jason Heyward are higher in that one.
Walker is no longer just Pittsburgh's own. Others are paying attention.
"I'm sure there's some of that, but I'm not really thinking about it," he said. "And really, I'm not thinking about too much of anything. My approach at the plate isn't all that mechanical, so that can be a blessing in disguise. Whether I'm hitting right or lefty or whatever the situation, all I'm thinking when I step into the box is to put the barrel on the ball."
He is doing so now even more than in his roller-coaster career in the minors, which he tried to explain.
"Having success in the minors, even in Triple-A, it's like, 'Yeah, that's good, but these aren't the best of the best.' When you come up here and have success against the best of the best, that can take you a long way. I'm not saying I'm there.
"There's so much work for me to do offensively and defensively. But, when you're not worried about anything mechanically, even if it's Randy Johnson out there, if you just worry about yourself, you can overcome a lot."
The Pirates overcame large odds in beating Atlanta, and that started with the starter.
Burres, plucked from the bullpen because of Jeff Karstens' shoulder injury, pounded the Braves inside, pinpointing his modest fastball and breaking several bats.
The inside plan was formulated by pitching coach Ray Searage and catcher Ryan Doumit based on Burres' 5 1/3 scoreless innings April 29 in Los Angeles, another emergency-start victory.
Most impressive in this one, Burres had two aboard and two outs in the Atlanta sixth with the score 1-1, and he stayed in the game after a visit from Russell -- a rare scene in Russell's tenure -- then got a groundout from Alex Gonzalez, followed by a warm standing ovation from the 15,330 on hand.
"Just wanted to make sure he was OK," Russell said of the visit. "He was really focused."
"For me, the key all day was stepping back, taking a deep breath and not letting things get out of control," Burres said.
Might Burres start again?
"We'll look at it," Russell said. "He made a pretty strong statement."
Jose Tabata led off the bottom half with a single, and Walker lined starter Tommy Hanson's 1-0 fastball over the fence to make it 3-1, but it hardly was over.
In the seventh, Resop allowed the Braves to load the bases after two outs, but Alvarez made an acrobatic pickup-and-throw on Martin Prado's check-swing roller.
Doumit reacted emotionally at the plate, pointing and shouting with the fire of a middle linebacker in the direction of Resop and Alvarez.
"That's just a huge play Pedro made," Doumit said. "To me, that's the ball game."
Not quite: Meek and Hanrahan also stranded runners, Hanrahan recording his fourth save.
Soon after, Hanrahan was wearing a Walker No. 18 replica jersey in the clubhouse.
"How 'bout the Pittsburgh kid?" Hanrahan said.
First Published September 7, 2010 12:00 am