Kamis, 23 Juni 2011

Walker turns 50 (RBIs)

By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, June 23, 2011

Maybe it's not exactly making the hair on the necks of Terry Francona's Boston Red Sox stand on end, but you know that little groundball Neil Walker rapped to short in the fourth inning Wednesday?

That produced Walker RBI No. 50.

Don't tweak your frontal lobe extrapolating. Fifty RBIs in 74 games works out to about 109, which is part of the reason these Pirates will open a three-game series against Boston here Friday night right smack at .500.

But go ahead, check your calendars. Holy last week of June.

Advised that no one has driven in 100 runs around here in five years (Jason Bay), Walker said he really doesn't want to think about that.

You're welcome.

"I'm hitting in the middle of the order behind guys like Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, Garrett Jones, whoever. If I have guys hitting in front of me who are putting up on-base percentages of .350 to .400, I'm going to get a lot of opportunities," Walker said after the Pirates used three infield hoppers to score four times in a 5-4 toppling of the Baltimore Orioles Wednesday afternoon.

"As far as numbers go, I'd just like to improve on the numbers I had last year, but, even though my average (.256 going into the weekend) hasn't been as good, I think I've improved in my situational hitting."

Walker was 0 for 4 officially, but the ground balls he shot into Baltimore's infield defense in his first two at-bats were anything but accidental. In the first inning, runners were at the corners after McCutchen's RBI single when Walker lashed a 1-1 pitch toward second. You don't get an RBI for double-play balls, but you do get the run home if you use the big part of the field. In the fourth, having run the count full, Walker chased McCutchen home with a grounder to short.

Without that run, the two that scored when Josh Harrison rolled one between second baseman Blake Davis' legs for a two-run error an inning later would not have handed a 5-4 lead to the Pirates' exemplary bullpen.

You won't win often with a total of two RBIs, but it makes a huge difference when the cleanup hitter has an RBI aptitude that obliterates the fact that he has only been in the big leagues full-time since last May.

"Yeah, he can hunt some RBIs," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I started feeling that way after first sliding him into the fourth spot in the order. For a while, that just wasn't a club I wanted to put in his golf bag.

"I mean it was like, he's from Pittsburgh, he lives in Pittsburgh, yeah, let's make him the cleanup hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But he's really embraced it in a mature way. He's got a slow heartbeat."

Since the All-Star break last year, only two players in the National League -- Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and Milwaukee's Prince Fielder -- have more RBIs than Walker's 104. He drove in three runs in the 9-3 victory Tuesday night, has 17 in June, and sitting at 50, he has more than any second baseman in baseball.

"It's understanding the situation more than anything else," Walker said. "I'm not trying to get too big, not trying to get a ball I can hit for a home run every time. I'll use the big part of the field to get a guy in from third."

With two outs and runners in scoring position, Walker is hitting .344, and that too, is no accident. Hitting .300 in any situation is great; hitting it 450 feet is nifty as well, but neither of those talents necessarily means you know how to drive in runs. You might drive in more accidently than most will on purpose, but knowing how to do it is a specialized knowledge many players never acquire.

The late Chuck Tanner used to relate a story about a critical late-inning situation, in which the Pirates had the bases loaded, and the opponent was changing pitchers. While that was going on, Tanner left the dugout for the on-deck circle and put both hands on the shoulders of John Milner.

"What we need here is a single up the middle," Tanner said.

Milner said, "Skip, we're down by four runs."

"That's right," Tanner said. "I need a single up the middle."

Tanner exits.

Milner homers.

It's not as simple as that, of course, but there's something to be said for any psychological device that keeps a player from jumping at the pitch, that slows the bat down just a bit in just the right situation.

"I never had a conversation like that," Walker said.

That is probably because he never needed one.

The Pirates might not extend this nearly three-month stretch of demonstrable competence much beyond this weekend, but they have a far better chance with RBI aptitude like Walker's at their disposal.

It's likely premature to talk about a winning season in Pittsburgh, but someone who can drive in 100 is pretty much a requirement. The Pirates haven't had a winning season without one since 1983, the summer before the summer before Neil Walker was born.

Photo: Pittsburgh Pirates' Neil Walker connects for an RBI triple in the first inning of a baseball game against the Houston Astros, Wednesday, June 15, 2011, in Houston. (AP)

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