Walker's first home run on home soil 'a dream'
The Pirates' Neil Walker is greeted at home by Andrew McCutchen after Walker's two-run home run in the eighth inning Tuesday at PNC Park.
Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones is unable to come up with this single by the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano.
The Cubs' Xavier Nady had four hits, including a home run and this single in the seventh inning.
The Pirates' Lastings Milledge steals second base in the eighth inning as the ball gets away from Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro.
The Pirates' Neil Walker celebrates with Andrew McCutchen after hitting a two-run homer, his first homer in the majors, off Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly in the eighth inning.
The Pirates' Aki Iwamura sits on the bench.
The Pirates' Garrett Jones rounds third to greetings from coach Tony Beasley after hitting a solo home run off Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly in the fourth inning.
Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens throws in the first inning.
The Cubs' Xavier Nady rounds the bases past Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens after hitting a two-run homer in the third inning.
The Cubs' Xavier Nady, right, is greeted at home by Kosuke Fukudome after hitting a two-run homer off Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens in the third inning.
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Maybe it's about time there was some Pittsburgh put back into the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Neil Walker, born and bred, boomed his first major-league home run on home soil, a two-run shot in the eighth inning to beat the Chicago Cubs, 3-2, Tuesday night before 11,334 at PNC Park.
It was, as he put it, "just something you dream about, really."
It was that and more, but start with the basics: After one out in the eighth, Andrew McCutchen walked, and Chicago manager Lou Piniella, after a lengthy meeting on the mound, opted to let starter Ted Lilly continue and protect the Cubs' 2-1 lead. That proved costly, when Walker used full extension to reach for a one-strike, 87-mph fastball and lift it into the bleachers beyond left-center field.
Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (3-4, 5.09) vs. RHP Carlos Zambrano (1-3, 6.12).
Key matchup: Zambrano will be making his first start since April 20, after which he had a 7.45 ERA and was sent to the bullpen. The Pirates scored three runs off him in one inning May 14.
Of note: Duke has allowed 85 hits, second-most in the National League. Arizona's Dan Haren has allowed 86.
The same bleachers where Walker and his buddies at Pine-Richland High School would spread out.
On the same North Shore where his father would take him to Three Rivers Stadium.
"This actually goes back to T-ball," Walker said, laughing at the memory. "Sitting at Three Rivers, up in peanut heaven and just watching the games. Back when I was 6 years old."
His father and mother were at this one, as was his girlfriend, but that was one of many thoughts swirling as he circled the bases.
Off the bat ...
"I thought for sure it would get to the gap and score Cutch. Couldn't believe when it went out."
Rounding second ...
"I thought about how we were going to win the game."
Heading for home ...
"I saw Cutch there. He and I have been in the minors for five, six years together, been through a lot."
And in the dugout, where Walker could be seen shaking ...
"It was ... I don't know if I can compare this to anything that's ever happened to me. Maybe the day I was drafted, "I'm really at a loss for words right now, and I'm usually not at a loss for words. I'm just tremendously happy."
He was not alone, receiving hugs and high-fives from acquaintances new and old. Reliever Joel Hanrahan pied him in the face during a TV interview. Catcher Ryan Doumit playfully switched the home run ball -- fetched by PNC Park's security staff by bartering with the Cubs fan who caught it -- with a threadbare phony before giving him the authentic one.
"It's just a great moment, a hometown kid hitting his first home run like that to put us ahead in the eighth," manager John Russell said. "It's going to be a thrill for him for the rest of his life. And we couldn't be happier for him."
If it were an isolated swing, it would ring so much more hollow than the reality: Walker is batting .312 in his eight games since being recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis, including four doubles and now the home run. He has been good enough that it took a week for management to reverse course on a plan to use him in a "corner-utility role," as general manager Neal Huntington had called it, and supplant a $4.85 million second baseman in Aki Iwamura.
This is not a Sean Casey cameo, a Chris Peters in the bullpen.
It appears to be a vital part of the Pirates' future.
And that, to hear Walker tell it, is what has him most excited.
"I was 6 years old the last time the Pirates had a winning season, you know?" he said. "But I'm from here, and I know the energy that our people have for the Steelers and Penguins, and I think the fan base for our team is just dying to give us that same kind of support. We are, too. It doesn't happen overnight. But there's talent here, and we're working toward that. And if I can be a part of that, of the Pirates winning again, that would be one of the most incredible things in my life."
Garrett Jones homered for a second consecutive game, team-high seventh on the season, to pull the Pirates within 2-1 in the fourth. Jeff Karstens pitched six solid innings -- two runs, six hits -- and Javier Lopez, Hanrahan and closer Octavio Dotel took it the rest of the way, Dotel recording his 12th save.
It looked for a long while as if the game would be defined by a dual baserunning blunder by Lastings Milledge and Karstens in the third.
With Karstens on first and two outs, Milledge lined a ball that got by center fielder Tyler Colvin and rolled to the wall. Karstens sprinted all the way around, but Milledge was thrown out at third on a sharp relay.
Yes, it was that most ill-advised of outcomes in baseball, making the third out at third base.
Milledge bounced to his feet and momentarily applauded, apparently consoled that at least he had driven in a run. But home plate umpire Tim McClelland, following a brief gathering with his crew, nullified the run Karstens did not touch home before Milledge was tagged out.
It certainly did not help that Karstens slowed as he approached the plate.
Russell had some of the harshest words of his managerial tenure for Milledge's role in the play.
"Lastings made a big mistake," Russell said. "He should have just stayed at second base with the pitcher in front of him. We had the run. His job was done. He got excited, and the excitement and adrenaline took over, and his brain didn't really take over at that point."
And of Karstens?
"You want him to run all the way, absolutely. But pitchers aren't on the bases that often. It's tough to fault them when they're not out there. But Lastings knew he made a mistake."
That was not readily obvious from Milledge's account of the play.
"I was trying to get a triple," he said. "I knew for sure that Jeff would score easily, even if I get thrown out at third. I was hustling all the way, 100 percent, and just came up short. It's the first time that's happened to me. I just need to know who's running in front of me, that's all."
Karstens took responsibility.
"I didn't run hard all the way, and I should have," he said.
The Pirates, 7-1 against the Cubs, will go for a second sweep tonight.
First Published June 2, 2010 12:00 am