September 2012

Let’s be clear: Walker gave it his all, and then some

I wrote an item on Neil Walker a couple of days ago in New York which greatly troubles me now.

It was a note on Walker’s dropped recent run-production, and how that was a missing element during the Pirates’ September swoon.

Three things about that item disturb me:

  • Use in the headline of the word “slump,” which doesn’t appear in the actual article and wrongly implied that Neil wasn’t doing as well as he could be. It’s an old journalistic misconception, but reporters do not write their own headlines — although they are responsible for making sure the chosen headline is appropriate.
  • While this may not have been the case, since his lack of opportunities with men in scoring position is mentioned in the piece, it may have caused the impression that Walker stepped off the clutch.
  • That I didn’t know the severity of the injury from which Neil had tried to come back — a herniated disc. This was simply because the media was never told, not until Neil himself mentioned it yesterday.

“Lower-back tightness” and “back spasms” are one thing. Those catch-all references to Walker’s condition didn’t do justice to the above-and-beyond attitude and competitiveness that made Walker try to come back when he did.

There are some Pirates whose desire and work ethic could come under question. This guy certainly isn’t one of them.

Walker shuts it down with herniated disc

Neil Walker has decided to shut it down for the rest of the season. Rather than continue the struggle of occasional play more than a month after being waylaid by a lower-back problem, the Pirates second baseman has pulled the plug on himself.

At the same time, Walker disclosed the full extent of the injury, which had not previously been disclosed:

“I have a herniated disc in my back,” Walker said.

He has wrestled with what for him was an excruciatingly tough call — “My goal was to help this team as much as I could.” — for days, even admitting having lost sleep over it.

“People probably raised their eyebrows when I would play one day and not play for a few days,” Walker said. “Rest is the biggest thing for this situation. It is getting better, but rest is important, and I won’t play the rest of the season. I’m shut down. That’s where we’re at.”

Since Walker’s injury — originally classified as “lower-back” strain, Brock Holt and Josh Harrison have taken turns at the position. Friday night, Jordy Mercer is getting his first start at second.

Walker did rule out the need for surgery, saying the specialists whom he has consulted reassured him that his condition was not that serious.

Huntington, aides to return in ’13

GM Neal Huntington and assistants Kyle Stark and Greg Smith will all be retained for the 2013 season, according to a statement just made by club president Frank Coonelly.

A second straight second-half collapse had focused on Huntington’s job status, while Stark and Smith had drawn considerable criticism for some unusual training practices with club prospects.

Coonelly’s full statement:

“For the second consecutive year, we put ourselves in an excellent position to meet our objective of winning our division but did not play nearly well enough during the last two months of the season to accomplish it. Our fans are understandably disappointed and frustrated, as is every individual in the organization. 

As soon as we finish this season as well as we possibly can, we will turn our full and total attention to evaluating why were unable to finish the job and what we must do differently to take the next step to becoming a championship team. There will unquestionably be changes made to the way in which we operate as a result of this thorough critical self-evaluation, but we will not be making personnel changes at the very top of our baseball operations department. Neal, Kyle, Greg and Clint are dedicated and intelligent baseball men in whom I have great confidence. 

Confidence in and support of Neal, Kyle and Greg should not be misunderstood with acceptance of another poor finish at the Major League level. We must understand why the quality of our execution and play deteriorated so markedly in August. Finishing was the focus from spring training but it certainly was not achieved.”

Sep 8: Football Saturday in the locker room

So how can you tell it’s a Saturday afternoon in September?

You walk into the Pirates clubhouse, and everyone is hunched over either their pad or phone following their college football team of choice. …

* * *

Rod Barajas was tracing something totally different on his phone: His kids’ soccer games in Southern California.

“Poor Stacie,” he said about his wife. “She’s got to take the kids to five different soccer games today.”

* * *

All this (warranted) consternation about possible scheduling nightmares in the event of end-of-season ties for playoffs spots has a touch of nostalgia for me. The main worry is that the already-tight postseason schedule would reach a breaking point if any tiebreakers have to be played.

It could result in all sorts of scheduling-travel nightmares since only one off-day is scheduled between the Oct. 3 end of the regular season and the Oct. 5 Wild Card one-game playoffs. People are wringing their hands over the possibility of, say, the Cardinals having to play at home on Wednesday, flying to Los Angeles to play the Dodgers in a Wild Card tiebreaker on Thursday and the winner of that game having to fly to Atlanta to play the Braves in the Wild Card playoff game on Friday.

Rough. But a whole media army tagged along with the Angels on just such an odyssey in 2005.

Here is how that happened:

  • Oct. 8, New York: Game 4 of the Division Series between the Angels and the Yankees is rained out.
  • Oct. 9, New York: Game 4 is played in prime time, and the Yankees win 3-2 tie knot the Series at 2-games each.
  • Oct. 10, Anaheim: Afternoon Game 5, Angels win 5-3 to advance.
  • Oct. 11, Chicago: Angels meet the White Sox in ALCS Game 1, and actually sleep-walk to a 3-2 win (then lose the next four).

Living out of a suitcase is one thing. Those three days, we all lived out of a straight-jacket.

Sep 7: Marte back, others still working on it

Starling Marte is back with the Bucs and back in left field — but not back atop the lineup. Clint Hurdle is keeping Brock Holt there “based on what I’ve seen the last four games — the performance and the production.”

Marte was activated after three rehab games (the last two at Indianapolis) and “has no limitations. He’s physically fit and ready to go.”

So that’s one back, five to go:

  • Neil Walker (lower-back tightness) will again try swinging a bat in the cage today.
  • Jose Tabata (left foot contusion) again hit in the cage (and I saw him limping back to the clubhouse afterwards) and is doing pre-game shagging in the outfield.
  • Travis Snider (right hamstring) got three total down-days, something he didn’t have the last time the strain shelved him, but can pinch-hit tonight if needed.
  • Chad Qualls (right big toe) will be activated Sunday.
  • Jeff Karstens (right hip flexor) played long toss today and plans to throw a bullpen tomorrow.

Holt, Four familiar names join Bucs

Four players with prior Major League experience and an infielder for whom the experience will be unprecedented have been added by the Pirates to their expanded roster.

Left-handers Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson, who have already contributed to the 2012 club, and catcher Eric Fryer were recalled from Indianapolis, while righty Chris Leroux was selected from the Triple-A club.

Also selected from the Indians was Brock Holt, who will be making his big-league debut after sparkling in his first month at the Triple-A level. Being “selected” applies to players newly-added to the 40-man roster, as were Leroux and Holt to fill the two existing vacancies.

This is anticipated to be only the first of at least two waves of promotions by the Pirates, with additional moves expected at the end of the Indians’ playoff run.

Holt, a slight (5-foot-10 and 165 pounds) Texan, hit .432 in 24 games following his promotion from Double-A Altoona after hitting .322 in 102 games with the Curve. A ninth-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, Holt has a .317 career Minor League average.

Leroux will also be making his first appearance of the season with the Pirates after having spent the first two months recovering from a strained pectoral muscle. He joined Indianapolis, first on a rehab assignment, on June 10 and was 4-0 with a 3.11 ERA in 21 games, including seven starts. The 24-year-old appeared in 51 games in 2009-11 with the Marlins and the Pirates, who selected him on waivers from Miami.

Locke, 24, was also a September call-up last year and briefly rejoined the Bucs earlier last month, allowing one hit in 4 1/3 innings of two relief appearances. 

Manager Clint Hurdle is expected to choose Locke to start on Tuesday in PNC Park against the Astros, stepping into to the spot vacated by released veteran lefty Erik Bedard.

Wilson, a career starter in the Minors, was recently converted to relief work, apprenticeship for the role he is expected to fill with the Pirates. In a one-day big-league introduction last month, he fired a shutout inning in San Diego, striking out the side around two hits allowed.

Fryer has had brief stays with the Pirates in each of the last two seasons. Recalled in early July, he appeared in four games, primarily as a pinch-hitter.

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