2013 triumphs create lasting memories for Walker
When the Pirates made the playoffs three years in a row to begin the 1990s, Neil Walker cheered them on and enjoyed their success as a young kid living in suburban Pittsburgh. And though he will always cherish such memories, they now take a back seat to what he experienced in 2013, when he lived the dream of actually being a member of a Pirates squad that participated in postseason play.
Walker, who has been Pittsburgh's starting second baseman since 2010, hit .251 with 16 home runs and 53 RBIs in 133 games during the regular season in 2013, despite two stints on the disabled list and what he termed his "most inconsistent" year in the Majors. The former No. 1 Draft pick out of Pine-Richland High School helped the Pirates reel in a playoff spot by batting .305 during the month of August, and smacking seven homers in September.
Winning 94 games during the regular season, beating the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card Game at a raucous PNC Park, and trading blows with the powerful St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Division Series are experiences that have been permanently etched in Walker's mind.
"After the roller coaster at the end of the year -- especially September, the Wild Card Game and the playoffs -- it took me about two weeks to come down from that high and realize that we really accomplished something special here in this town," Walker said. "I don't think anybody knows that more than I do, because I've seen it from every different angle -- as a fan, as a kid, as a kid in the Minor Leagues, and now, as a Major League player."
Walker -- who turned 28 last September -- knows there will be high expectations for the Pirates in 2014, but he thinks the team always expects more of itself than folks outside the organization do.
"Going into last season, the expectation of every single [outside] person was about .500," Walker said. "Not in our locker room, but if you would have told pretty much everybody else that we were going to go .500, they would have said they were all right with that. I think that's kind of where the bar was set, but we blew that out of the water.
"So the bar is going to be set high this year. We know that. We're not going to be able to sneak up on anybody. We're not going to be the kid brother of the NL Central anymore. It's not going to be a situation where we slip in, take two out of three from someone and then we're out of town. Those days are long gone. We're going to have to do a good job, come Spring Training, of realizing that it's not going to be as easy as maybe it seemed to get back to where we want to be and back to where we need to be."
In Walker's opinion, one thing that will help in that regard is the continued influence of Clint Hurdle, who was named the NL Manager of Year in 2013. The affable skipper is never at a loss for words, and when his players speak of him, they aren't either.
"The way Clint carries himself, the way he speaks and the way his demeanor is in the clubhouse on a day-to-day basis is something that resonates down the line -- not just at the big league level, but the Minor League level, too," Walker said. "When guys come up here, you don't see that deer-in-the-headlights look. You don't see guys worried about, 'What kind of mood is the skipper in today?' He's always in the same mood -- win-loss, bad week-good week, bad month-good month -- he's always optimistic, always positive and always looking to get better. Those things help you relax as a player. Those are important qualities in a manager, in my opinion."
Walker believes the 2014 Pirates will benefit from having played so many high-pressure games during the 2013 campaign, and that the team's winning formula won't change.
"We're going to do the same things we've done in the past," he said. "We're going to scratch and claw on the offensive side, and we're going to play good defense and pitch well. So we'll see how it goes. From day one, you have to be ready to play, and I know as one of the leaders of this team, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure there's no letdown. That's a very important piece of this."