Pirates 2B Walker ready to put back issues to rest

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 12, 2013
Mlb-astros-pirates
Neil Walker knows what it's like to watch a Pittsburgh Pirates season slip away. It happened time and again during his childhood, when one fruitless summer led to another for his hometown team. It was exasperating, but it wasn't nearly as painful as what happened last fall, when the second baseman's back went out and Pittsburgh's hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in 20 years soon followed. The Pirates were 68-59 on Aug. 27 when Walker began to feel the effects of what was eventually diagnosed as a herniated disk. He missed 27 of the team's final 35 games, gritting his teeth as the Pirates faded from contention. ''There's not a more helpless feeling as a guy that's used to playing every day than to not be out there and help the team, especially in times of need,'' Walker said. Replacement Brock Holt struggled to provide a spark either at the plate or in the field and Pittsburgh's offense all but disappeared without help from the steady switch-hitter determined to return the Pirates to prominence. Walker's absence was hardly the only thing that went wrong over the season's final six weeks, though that didn't make it any easier to swallow. It's one of the reasons why the 27-year-old started his offseason program barely a week after the Pirates ended up 78-84. Working with a team of specialists, Walker gradually rebuilt strength in his back and was assured at every step along the way it not be a recurring problem. That was welcome news to a 6-foot-3 guy who spends half of his time on the job in a defensive crouch on the edge of the infield. A typical day now includes a 15-20 minute series of exercises designed to take some of the pressure off his back. He focuses on his core and his hips. The looser they are, the better he feels. It's not quite yoga, but it's pretty close. Getting a head start on his offseason program also helped him avoid the weight gain that tends to pop up over the winter. He arrived in Bradenton last month about 10 pounds lighter than he typically is this time of year. ''I felt great and I haven't felt any weaker or anything like that, which has been good,'' he said. ''To not carry a little extra weight on top is probably good for my back anyway.'' Though Walker hasn't exactly busted out during spring training - he's hitting .158 (3 for 19) in eight games - he's confident he can be just as productive as he was a year ago when he batted .280 with a career-high 14 homers and 69 RBI despite missing more than a month. Those numbers were good enough for Walker to get a pay bump from $500,000 to $3.3 million, a deal he worked out with the Pirates just hours before going to arbitration. ''It can turn into a spitting match if you let it, but it wasn't that way,'' he said. ''They submitted their numbers, we submitted ours and we met right smack in the middle.'' Even so, the Pirates have yet to reach out to Walker to discuss a longer term deal even though he is considered part of the core the team wants to build around. Walker insists he's not worried about his future, pointing out that he still has three years of arbitration remaining before he becomes a free agent. Maybe, but Pittsburgh made sure to lock up All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen last spring. In a way, Walker may be almost as valuable to the franchise because of his steady production and his western Pennsylvania roots. The team promotes Walker heavily. On Mother's Day last year, every female fan that walked through the gates received a pink Walker jersey, as did every child in attendance. Walker is diplomatic when talking about his long-term importance to the Pirates. ''The way I see it is if I prepare myself like I have during the offseason and every day I go out and give my best effort and stay healthy, all that stuff will take care of itself,'' he said. ''When we get to that bridge, we'll cross it.'' That apparently won't happen this spring. Owner Bob Nutting has stressed the team is ''willing to pay up for a great player'' but that the club ''can't ever do it to feel like it's the popular thing that we're doing.'' Walker doesn't believe his future will be a distraction. He's more anxious to help the Pirates get over the hump. That includes becoming more productive as a right-handed hitter. He hit just .246 from the right side and struggled to generate any power. All but five of his 29 hits while batting right-handed were singles and all of his home runs came from the left side. ''The hardest part of being a switch hitter is finding the happy medium,'' he said. ''That's why you have to simplify things as much as possible. It's tough. It's not easy.'' There are no plans to give up hitting right-handed and he knows he can still contribute in other ways. Walker says he learned a lot by watching Pittsburgh shortstop Clint Barmes play Gold Glove-caliber defense in 2012 despite a horrendous start at the plate, when it took Barmes two months to hit over .200. ''To see him go about his business on the defensive end has made me that much better of a defensive player,'' Walker said. One whose back is ready to handle a full workload. ''From all the work that I've done this offseason, I've challenged my back to a degree above what I will during the season,'' he said. ''It's responded well every single time.'' --- Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP
GET THE YARDBARKER APP:
Ios_download En_app_rgb_wo_45
MORE FROM YARDBARKER

Best and worst from NBA All-Star Saturday night

WATCH: Klay Thompson can't go home unless he beats Steph Curry in 3-Point contest

Star players are hurting Houston Rockets

Emmitt Smith: Adrian Peterson only current player who could break rushing record

Coach K gets buzzer-beater win over Virginia for his birthday

Baylor approves new measures to deal with sexual assault

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
GET THE DAILY NEWSLETTER:

Joe Mauer: Concussions blurred vision, affected hitting

LeBron James says Kevin Love-Celtics trade rumor is false

Michael Jordan gifts Kobe Bryant full set of Air Jordans

Bethune-Cookman football player killed at party

Former UFC heavyweight Kevin Randleman dead at 44

WATCH: Chelsea scores three goals in less than 20 minutes

LaVine, Gordon put on best NBA dunk contest in years

WATCH: Thompson beats teammate Curry in 3-point contest

NFL teams, players hand out awesome Valentines

Earl Campbell ‘disappointed’ in Johnny Manziel, wants to help

Big man Karl-Anthony Towns wins NBA skills challenge

MLB commish: Cubs will host All-Star Game in near future

WATCH: Memphis forward recreates Vince Carter's elbow dunk in game

Bruins forward is goal scoring machine after suspension

Michael Jordan gives Kobe Bryant complete set of Air Jordans

Drake has Kentucky edition of custom ‘OVO’ Air Jordan 8s

QUIZ: Name every NBA All-Star Game MVP

Watch rare footage of Stephen Curry from 2001-02 emerges

Check out this custom camouflage Oregon helmet

MLB News
Delivered to your inbox
You'll also receive Yardbarker's daily Top 10, featuring the best sports stories from around the web. Customize your newsletter to get articles on your favorite sports and teams. And the best part? It's free!

By clicking "Sign Me Up", you have read and agreed to the Fox Sports Digital Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. You can opt out at any time. For more information, please see our Privacy Policy.
the YARDBARKER app
Get it now!
Ios_download En_app_rgb_wo_45

Ranking the ten best free agent pitcher signings

Who had the best NBA All-Star Game of the last 40 years?

The winners and losers of the 2016 MLB offseason

On Kobe Bryant and taking greatness for granted

Bucks need to choose between wins, development

Fantasy booking WrestleMania 32

Unrestricted free agents each team must consider re-signing

QUIZ: Name the winners of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest

Thank you Daniel Bryan

The timeless greatness of Jaromir Jagr

Today's Best Stuff
For Publishers
Company Info
Help
Follow Yardbarker