Monday, May 09, 2011
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Told second baseman Neil Walker a little fib Sunday after the Pirates came back from the dead to beat the Houston Astros, 5-4.
Told him I didn't necessarily think the home team was going to lose after the Astros scored three runs in the seventh inning and one in the eighth to take a 4-2 lead.
OK, so it was a big lie.
"I'm sure a lot of people who watched us last year in that situation were saying, 'This game is over,'" Walker said, grinning.
Guilty as charged.
Did you see Ryan Doumit's three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth coming?
Sure, you did.
The Pirates had been 1-11 when trailing after seven innings.
"It was huge," Walker gushed. "It's a sign of how resilient this ball club really is. This is a new attitude team."
You'll get no celebration here that the Pirates reached the .500 mark at 17-17 for the first time since they were 8-8 on April 18. It's way too early for that. What you will get, though, is a celebration of Walker's first 34 games of the season. He has been the team's best, most consistent player during a time when runs haven't always come easily.
It is such a wonderful story, Walker being the hometown kid and all.
"Unbelievable," Walker called it. "To do it in this town ... It's not something that crosses my mind a lot. I'm so focused on today and what I have to do to get ready for tomorrow.
"But then I'll see my friends from [Pine-Richland] high school. They never let me forget how cool it is. It's good to be reminded of it."
Make no mistake, Doumit was the offensive star Sunday. Talk about a guy with resiliency. The Pirates spent the winter trying to trade him and his $5.1 million salary after giving his catching job to Chris Snyder. Never once has he sulked. He just keeps contributing when he gets a chance. He also hit a big home run -- a grand slam -- in his previous start Wednesday in San Diego. No one deserved a curtain call from the PNC Park crowd more.
But Walker was involved in everything the Pirates did offensively. He walked in the first inning when they scored a run and had a leadoff single and scored their run in the fourth. He also started the rally in the eighth with a one-out single.
None of it was surprising. Walker has hit safely in 24 of his 34 starts and reached base in 28. Since going four consecutive games without a hit April 19-23, he has hit in 12 of 14 games, 20 for 54 (.370) with six multi-hit games.
"I consider myself a gamer," Walker said. "Like I've talked about before, you're not going to see my skills off the chart in any category. But I consider myself a leader. I'm going to grind out at-bats and do anything I can to help the team win. We've got enough other skilled guys on this team that, if I just do my part, we're going to win a lot of games."
Walker was talking about center fielder Andrew McCutchen, left fielder Jose Tabata and third baseman Pedro Alvarez. He said he doesn't have McCutchen's five tools, Tabata's complete package of skills or Alvarez's sheer power. But here's the thing: He has been the best of the bunch so far, although McCutchen finally is starting to hit. Tabata, after getting off to a .354 start in the first 13 games, is hitting just .133 and has been fighting a hamstring problem. Alvarez is hitting .212 with one home run and seven RBIs and missed his fourth consecutive game Sunday because of quadriceps injury. He could play tonight against the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park.
It seems funny now that Walker had more doubters than any of the four at the start of the season. I know I'd be telling another fib if I said I didn't want to see more after he hit .296 with 12 home runs and 66 RBIs in 110 games after he was promoted from Class AAA in late May only because Aki Iwamura was such a failure at second base. The doubts weren't just about Walker's offense. Could he keep getting better at second, a new position for him?
The answer is yes, of course.
Walker has contributed as much with his glove as with his bat.
"I'm starting to really get better at reading at-bats and reading swings," he said. "That's helped to put me in the right spots. It's almost become second nature. I don't think I could have said that even in spring training."
Clearly, Walker has a good thing going.
What a joy he is to watch.
And, no, that's no lie.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard weekdays on the "Vinnie and Cook" show from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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