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Pirates notebook: Walker's razor a right-handed swing solution

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 4:30 p.m.
The Pirates' Neil Walker hits during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds won 4-0.
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The Pirates' Neil Walker hits during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds won 4-0.

CINCINNATI — When examining competing theories for a solution to a problem, sometimes the simpler choice is best.

Neil Walker went into the offseason well aware of the criticism regarding his right-handed swing. He knew he hit .225 with no home runs right-handed last season. Some suggested he retire from switch-hitting. Instead, Walker resolved to fix his right-handed swing, traveling to Bradenton, Fla., in mid-January to begin the search for an answer.

Walker's solution seems obvious. He has raised his hands to more closely resemble the starting point of his more successful left-handed swing, shortening the bat path. He then took hundreds of extra right-handed reps in Florida batting cages and batting practice sessions this March to develop muscle memory, also focusing on beginning his swing earlier.

The early results have been excellent. Walker hit his fifth career right-handed home run Tuesday off Reds left-handed pitcher Manny Parra. Walker entered Wednesday batting .375 right-handed, albeit a small sample size. He also demonstrated improvement in March. Walker hit .353 in 17 spring at-bats right-handed, including a home run against Phillies' lefty Armando Bastardo on March 16, his only homer of the spring.

“I've worked on so many different things mechanically over the last several years but the only thing that I worked on this offseason was getting my hands into a little bit better hitting position, similar to my left-handed swing,” Walker said. “That was my focus. I wanted both my sides to be somewhat similar. It makes maintenance easier, understanding what my body is doing, what is going on if things go haywire.”

Walker said one of the difficulties in maintaining a right-handed swing as a switch-hitter is there are fewer left-handed pitchers, meaning fewer in-game reps. The issue is exacerbated with the Pirates as the only left-handed coach available for batting practice is pitching coach Ray Searage, whose time is more wisely spent working with pitchers.

“Once spring training started I made sure we had a guy over there who was left-handed,” Walker said. “One of the minor league guys would come over and work with us, he would throw (batting practice) in the morning.”

Walker said the club is working on finding another left-handed batting practice arm.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle sees a right-handed Walker that looks more like the left-handed Walker, who has a .799 career OPS and 54 homers against right-handed pitching.

“The swing is different. The swing is improved,” Hurdle said. “It's just hard work. It's commitment. It's believing in him.”

Tabata injured, status unknown

Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata slammed into the left-field wall in the fifth inning while making a catch Wednesday. He held on to the ball but lay on the warning track in pain for several minutes. He slowly walked off the field and did not return.

The Pirates announced Tabata was dealing with “mild” concussion symptoms. Hurdle said it was too early to tell if Tabata would miss significant time.

“I'm glad he was able to walk off. We'll see how he feels tomorrow. He was responsive,” Hurdle said. “I'll probably have more information (Thursday).”

Hurdle also declined to address who would replace Tabata as a fourth outfielder if Tabata qualifies for the seven-day concussion DL.

“It's too early to tell,” Hurdle said. “I'd like to see Tabata (Thursday).”

Mental day for Marte

With just two hits through the first eight games of the road trip, Starling Marte was scheduled for an off-day Wednesday to regroup, Hurdle said. Marte entered the day second in the NL with 23 strikeouts. He had to replace the injured Tabata in the fifth inning.

“The swing doesn't look right to me,” Hurdle said. “It's been too soft at the top of the order. I just think he needs a day off to rest himself mentally.”

Marte entered Wednesday hitting .259 with a .348 on-base percentage.

Stewart plan in place

Hurdle said the club has finalized a plan for backup catcher Chris Stewart's return to the major league club, though Hurdle was unwilling to share the time line. Stewart, who is rehabbing a torn meniscus, is eligible to return from the disabled list. He was scheduled to catch Jeff Locke in a start with Triple-A Indianapolis on Wednesday.

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