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Pirates notebook: Walker nearing return

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 5:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker watches the game against the Mariners from the dugout Tuesday, May 7, 2013, at PNC Park.

Neil Walker said he plans to be in the Pirates' lineup either on Sunday in New York or on Monday, when the club returns home to open a four-game series with Milwaukee.

The second baseman had stitches removed from his right hand Tuesday. He will travel to Altoona, the Pirates' Double-A affiliate, to play in rehab games on Thursday and Friday, and perhaps into the weekend.

Walker has not played since he suffered a laceration at St. Louis on April 26. He was able to hit in the batting cage prior to Sunday's game and planned to take batting practice Tuesday.

“It's good. I feel like I'm pretty close back to 100 percent as far as the hand goes,” he said. “I'm participating in everything I can, normally. I'm going to play on Thursday and Friday (in Altoona) and if that goes well I'll join the team on Saturday. If I feel like I need a couple more at bats I'll probably wait until the team comes back on Monday. I can play on Sunday, but I don't know if timing-wise how many at bats I'll need because this is the first time I've done this.”

Walker is batting .253 with one home run and eight RBIs this season.

Stiff neck benches Martin

Pirates catcher Russell Martin was scratched from Tuesday's lineup after suffering muscle spasms (neck) during a pregame workout. The Pirates medical staff took precautionary X-rays, which were negative. Martins said he is day to day.

“I feel better than I did earlier,” Martin said after Tuesday's game. “Kind of freaky how it happened… I was doing lateral jumps (during warm-ups), and as I landed on one of my jumps, my neck just locked up. It just really flared up.”

New, improved Liriano?

Pirates left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano demonstrated a trait he hadn't shown much of in recent years while on his rehab assignment: the ability to throw strikes.

Liriano walked four batters – and struck out 33 – over 21 23 rehab innings, while coming back from a broken right-arm. Liriano was in the Pirates clubhouse Tuesday and is expected to start Saturday in New York. He credited a mechanical adjustment to his improved command.

“I'm more overhand than in the past. I'm just trying to stay back,” Liriano said. “My fastball is getting better location-wise.”

Cutch meets the king

Like many Pirates, center fielder Andrew McCutchen has little experience against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who will face the Pirates on Wednesday. McCutchen has never faced Hernandez. Is that an advantage for Hernandez?

“It can be,” McCutchen said. “But you have to look at it from their standpoint; they've never really faced us before either. They don't really know how to pitch us all they can do is look at a sheet of paper.”

Cooling trend

Hernandez is off to a great start this season, possessing a 1.60 ERA entering PNC Park. Hernandez has always been effective but he remains an ace-caliber pitcher despite a decline in velocity. Hernandez averaged 95.6 mph with his fastball in 2007, this season it has declined to 91.1 mph.

“If you look at his splits, his pure fastball useage is a little less than 50 percent,” Hurdle said. “But he has a very dangerous cutter, a devastating changeup. He's learned how to pitch. He's gone from being a thrower to a guy that understands what weapons are and how to best utilize them.”

Hurdle noted Hernandez can still reach back and touch 96 mph when needed.

Extra bases

Hurdle is “optimistic” regarding Jose Tabata's hamstring health. Tabata ran well prior to Tuesday's game. “I think we'll be able to use him off the bench,” Hurdle said.

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