Pirates notebook: Walker's back is back to normal

Rob Biertempfel
| Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, 5:36 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — After missing time last season due to a cranky lower back, second baseman Neil Walker went at full speed Friday in the Pirates' first full-squad workout of spring training.

“His back is not an issue with where we stand today,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's physically fit and ready for duty.”

Walker sat out 27 of the final 35 games due to a herniated disc. After consulting with a back specialist and rehabbing, Walker was cleared in mid-November to resume baseball activities. He trained this winter at the IMG facility in Bradenton and is following a maintenance program.

“I've had no setbacks as far as the baseball stuff and lifting weights and running,” Walker said. “It's still going to be a (matter of) move slowly at first (in camp) because it doesn't make sense to do it any other way.”

Walker reported no ill effects after fielding grounders and taking batting practice Friday. He does not expect to need restrictions or extra days off during the regular season.

“As long as I'm doing what I need to do with my exercises and keeping my muscles strong, there's no reason why this should ever be an issue again,” Walker said.

Part-time closer

When he started his college career, Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer never expected to become Oklahoma State's career leader in saves.

Mercer recorded 17 saves from 2006-08 with the Cowboys, even while getting most of his playing time as an infielder.

His school record still stands, though it could be broken this season by senior Randy McCurry, who has 11 career saves.

Recruited as an infielder, Mercer became a part-time closer by chance. During fall workouts in Mercer's freshman year, coach Frank Anderson asked what Mercer knew about pitching.

Eager to impress the coach, Mercer said he'd give it a shot.

“So one day I came in and threw toward the end of the game,” Mercer said. “When I went back to the dugout, coach said, ‘We found our new closer. You're going to start closing games for us.' ”

In games in which it seemed likely Mercer would pitch, Anderson would make a mound visit in the eighth inning, giving Mercer a chance to play catch with the third baseman and get his arm loose.

Mercer wasn't a finesse pitcher. Or a power pitcher.

“I threw ... over the plate,” he said with a laugh. “Just put it over the plate. I had a little slider and a fastball, but that was it. All I was trying to do was get people out.”

Before he was drafted, a handful of teams were interested in Mercer as a pitcher. Most wanted him as an infielder, including the Pirates, who selected him in the third round. Now his pitching days are over.

“I don't know if I could do it now,” he said. “Every since I got to the Pirates, they told me to never go on the mound — and I've listened to them.”

Around the horn

Friday was the first full-squad workout. Before taking the fields, players, coaches and staff gathered for a meeting with general manager Neal Huntington. Owner Bob Nutting will address the team next week. ... Right-handed pitcher Chris Leroux will start March 9 for Canada against Mexico in the World Baseball Classic. ... The Pirates will donate $75,000 for construction of three lighted Little League fields in nearby Palmetto, Fla.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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