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No switch in plans this season for Pirates second baseman Walker

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, 9:30 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker bats against the Yankees on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker talks with hitting coach Jeff Branson during batting practice at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker connects on a pitch during batting practice at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker takes right-handed batting practice at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker prepares to take batting practice after talking with hitting coach Jeff Branson at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

TAMPA — The Pirates are going to send Neil Walker to minor league camp.

Don't panic. The Pittsburgh Kid still is the starting second baseman. There's logic behind having Walker play some innings against the Triple-A Durham Bulls or Double-A Trenton Thunder on a day the Pirates are facing the New York Yankees.

Blame a lack of left-handed pitchers. Walker scuffled last year against southpaws, but it's hard to figure them out without facing them often in spring training. So when lefties are scheduled to pitch in minor league games, Walker will catch a ride from McKechnie Field to Pirate City to put in his work.

Some stats wonks insist it would be better for Walker to give up switch-hitting. He said that would be running from a problem, not finding a solution.

“I'll always be a switch-hitter,” Walker said Thursday. “The critics can say this or that about hitting left-handed (full-time). But if they'd ever try to hit a left-hander's slider (while batting) left-handed, they'd reconsider.”

Walker's struggles last year were not limited to lefties. Many of his stats were significantly lower, he made two trips to the disabled list and he was not a factor at the plate in the playoffs.

“I was battling myself for most of the year,” Walker said. “I just got in a place where I was treading water, trying to force things. I tried to do too much at certain times, and that's just not necessary. I know I'm a better player than what the numbers show.”

Regardless of what camp he's in, Walker has plenty to work on during spring training. He wants to get back to his roots as a gap-to-gap hitter.

Walker hit 16 home runs last season, the most by a Pirates second baseman since Bill Mazeroski slugged 16 in 1966. Yet, despite having about the same number of at-bats with runners in scoring position, Walker drove in fewer runs (53) than he did a year earlier (69).

In the wild-card game against the Cincinnati Reds, Walker doubled and went 2 for 5. But he was hitless in all 19 at-bats against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series.

“It wasn't a lack of effort,” Walker said. “I tried to push things too much, and that was the wrong thing to do.”

There were some good stretches for Walker, too. After coming off the DL at the end of July, he put together a career-best nine-game hitting streak and batted .305 in August. In mid-September, Walker homered four times in a five-game stretch.

“He went about his business and busted his butt to be ready every day,” shortstop Clint Barmes said. “Everybody goes through struggles. I thought he handled it great.”

When asked about last season in general terms, Walker's first response had nothing to do with his personal high or low points. He talked about the thrill of being part of the first Pirates club in 21 years to reach the playoffs.

“You can already tell the success of last year has carried over to spring training,” Walker said. “You can feel the confidence. You can feel the sense of no matter who we have in here, we have a chance to win every night.

“It's the same for me individually. When you can prove to yourself, to each other and to a city that you're as good as you think you are, it can take you a long way.”

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

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