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Healthy again, Pirates' Walker ready to return

| Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, 7:42 p.m.
Christopher Horner
The Pirates' Neil Walker is feeling better after an injury-plagued second half in 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

It was a tough final two months for the Pirates and, in particular, second baseman Neil Walker. Walker suffered a dislocated finger and then injured his back. He was hurting. But more painful, he said, was the anguish of watching helplessly as his club's once-promising season again melted away.

“To go from an everyday player and to contribute both in the clubhouse and on the field, to have to sit and watch for the entire last month when we were playing meaningful baseball, there was nobody more frustrated than I was,” Walker said recently at PirateFest.

On Aug. 15, as the Pirates' second-half skid was unfolding, Mark Ellis of the Dodgers slid hard into second base in the first inning and toppled Walker, who landed on his right hand. His pinky bent out of shape, Walker left the game and also missed the next three. Later in the month, with the losses piling up, a herniated disc sidelined Walker for 15 games. He tried to come back but had trouble running and moving in the field. The club shut him down in late September.

In 42 games before the finger injury, Walker hit .348 with 10 homers and 37 RBI. Afterward, with his back a bother, too, he hit .192 in just 15 games as the Pirates' season bottomed out for a second straight year.

“Mentally, it just drove me insane,” he said. “A lot of restless nights, a lot of what-ifs. ‘If could just get back.' And I did try to come back, but I wasn't helping myself, and I wasn't helping the team.”

Walker began rehabilitation immediately after the season. The back wasn't the only problem: Nerve damage had weakened his legs.

“It was really a start-from-scratch type of thing,” he said.

It was a difficult process, but the result is a healthier and happier Walker looking forward to a better 2013 season.

“He looks great,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.

Walker said he feels great, too.

“I'm back to a hundred percent and able to do my normal offseason workouts,” said the Pine-Richland graduate, a 2004 Pirates first-round draft pick.

Walker is considered an above-average hitter for his position. His defense is solid, and he is considered an asset off the field.

“We missed him,” Hurdle said. “It's that old saying, ‘You don't know how valuable something is until till you don't have it any more.' He's very much appreciated. (His absence) took away from the ballclub not just offensively but defensively to some degree and obviously in the dugout. ... There was some repercussions and collateral damage when he left the lineup.”

A switch-hitter, Walker is better from the left side. But he hit even less than expected as a righty last season: .248 with no homers vs. 291 with 14 homers. Working with new hitting coach Jay Bell, that will be a point of emphasis for Walker during the offseason and spring training.

“When he hits right-handed, I don't think there's the same leverage,” Hurdle said. “I don't think there's the same power. I do think there's the same hand-eye contact and the ability to square the ball up and do good things with it. I think he's got to be more of a bang-it-back-up-the-middle, aggressive, pepper-type hitter. I think he found that out himself.”

Walker said he is looking forward to arbitration for the first time but would like to stay with his hometown team “for a long, long time.” He is still a fan, and acted like it when he met Bell, a former Pirate.

“He was one of my favorite players from the early '90s teams,” he said. “He and (Andy) Van Slyke. I told (Bell) the first time I saw him, ‘Let's get this out of the way. You were one of my favorite players. All right, we're done with it.' ”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810.

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