Spring training | Pittsburgh kid Neil Walker back on the field for Pirates

Walker suffered back pain, frustration as 2012 faded away

jlembo@bradenton.comFebruary 27, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Neil Walker's story is well-documented.

Pittsburgh kid grows up cheering for the Pirates, gets drafted in the first round by hometown team in 2004, patiently goes through a number of position changes, makes a major-league roster five years after the draft, finds his niche as a second baseman, makes back-to-back Opening Day starts.

Sounds great, right?

The story, however, took a painful twist last year, when Walker was sidelined with a back injury. It gets worse: The ailment grew most intolerable toward the end of the year, when the Pirates were in the thick of the wild-card chase and angling for their first winning season since 1992.

"It was probably the most frustrating thing I've gone through," Walker said. "To be an everyday guy and being a contributor to just watching, especially how the last five weeks of the season went. ... It was really, really frustrating."

A herniated disc robbed Walker of 27 of the Pirates' final 35 games, including a run of 16 straight when Pittsburgh went 4-12. While Walker watched helplessly from the dugout, the Pirates spiraled out of playoff contention and watched their record of consecutive losing seasons stretch to 20.

The timing couldn't have

been worse.

"I wish I was able to play, and obviously how things ended up was not good," Walker said Sunday afternoon, when the Pirates scored a 9-2 win over the Atlanta Braves at McKechnie Field. "But to sit back and watch and have things happen the way it happened, it did hurt a little bit more."

Walker initially tried to play through the pain. But the extra attention he paid to his back wreaked havoc on other parts of his body, including his hamstring.

When he did try to return toward the end of the year, Walker found he could swing the bat but couldn't run the bases or move around in the field.

"My left leg, my hamstring, it wasn't reacting like it normally would," he said. "I tried to come back; I tried to help the team. Once we kind of officially got out of it, it made sense to shut it down and kind of press the restart button and get ready for this next season."

It's not coincidental that the Pirates' slide paralleled Walker's injury.

Drafted as a catcher, Walker has found a home as a second baseman. He drove in 83 runs in 2011, his first full season in the majors, and swatted 14 home runs last year, the most by a Pirates second since Warren Morris hit 15 in 1999.

And Walker was fifth among National League second baseman in range factor, which measures a player's defense by dividing putouts and assists by number of innings played.

"We missed him," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review last year.

Walker was in the lineup Sunday, however, and made a leaping snare of a line drive. He spent seven weeks in rehab and physical therapy and does a 20-minute program each morning to keep his back loose.

"The good news is talking with many back specialists and doctors that if I continue do this program," Walker said, "this shouldn't be an issue ever again. I didn't take care of myself the way I needed, and that was what happened. I know where I am now."

And if the Pirates find themselves in the middle of a pennant chase this summer, Walker hopes to join them,.

"It was just great to be out there and not have anything in the back of my mind as far as, 'How am I feeling?'" Walker said, "because all the symptoms have obviously gone away, and I feel strong and moving the way I want to. It's a very good time right now."

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