Box score of the day: Walker walks it off for Bucs

March 31st, 2020

On Opening Day in 2014, the Pirates were riding high. After all, the franchise had just reached its first postseason in more than two decades, and was poised to compete for the postseason again. Indeed, Pittsburgh did get back to the playoffs, and the journey began with a thrilling victory at PNC Park on March 31. The Pirates and Cubs remained scoreless until the bottom of the 10th inning, when Neil Walker belted a solo homer to end it.

The two teams would head in opposite directions, with the Pirates winning their second consecutive National League Wild Card berth and the Cubs finishing in the NL Central cellar for the fifth straight year. The Cubs' time would come, and some of the names in the lineup for this game would be central to Chicago breaking a 108-year World Series title drought two years later. The Bucs, meanwhile, would reach a third straight Wild Card Game in 2015, only to lose yet again. They haven't been back to the postseason since.

Let's look back six years, when Walker's walk-off set the tone for a great season on the banks of the Allegheny, while the Cubs continued the process of building a winner on the North Side of Chicago.

Player of the game: Neil Walker, 2B, Pirates

He's been with the Mets, Brewers, Yankees and Marlins since -- and now he's a Phillie -- but most of Walker's best years came when he was with the Pirates from 2009-15. On Opening Day in 2014, he was the hero in Pittsburgh, smashing a 3-2 fastball from Cubs reliever Carlos Villanueva over the wall in right field to open and close the scoring in a 1-0 Bucs victory. It was the first of a career-high 23 homers Walker would hit that season to help the Pirates reach the postseason in back-to-back years following a drought from 1993-2012.

Walker would hit 23 homers again two years later with the Mets, though in 24 fewer games. Since then, injuries have been a constant issue -- he hasn't played in more than 115 games in a season, and over the past two years, his OPS has been a mediocre .700 (up to that point in his career, it had been .778).

Remember him? Junior Lake, OF, Cubs

Lake was an intriguing, if rough-around-the-edges prospect signed by the Cubs out of the Dominican Republic in 2007. He had great raw power and speed, but had issues with strikeouts and defense at shortstop, the position he played when he was signed. He made his MLB debut on July 19, 2013, as a center fielder against the Rockies at Coors Field after Brian Bogusevic was hurt. Lake had a great debut, going 3-for-4 with a double and a steal.

But things didn't quite work out for Lake -- he held his own that rookie season, slashing .284/.332/.428 with six homers in 254 plate appearances, but slumped badly in 2014, posting a .597 OPS in 326 plate appearances. He only appeared in 21 Major League games for Chicago the next season before he was traded to the Orioles for right-hander Tommy Hunter. Lake could never get things turned around, playing in only 30 more MLB games between the Orioles (eight) and the Blue Jays (22).

Lake is still playing baseball, currently with the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican League. In 2019, he hit .306/.410/.528 with 21 homers and 25 steals in 114 games.

He wore THAT uniform? Travis Ishikawa, 1B, Pirates

Ishikawa was drafted and developed by the Giants, and played for San Francisco through 2010, when the franchise won its first World Series title in 56 years. But he quickly became a journeyman after that, playing for the Brewers, Orioles and Yankees before signing with the Pirates prior to the 2014 season. He'd only play in 15 games for Pittsburgh, going 7-for-34 (.206) with one home run, including a pair of singles in a 2-for-3 performance on Opening Day.

Little did he know it at the time, but Ishikawa was destined for a reunion with the Giants, along with a significant place in club history. After hitting just .161 through April 18, he was designated for assignment and elected free agency, signing with San Francisco on April 25. He slashed .274/.333/.397 in sporadic playing time, but in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series against the Cardinals, Ishikawa found himself in the batter's box with two men on base and the game tied, 3-3. He lined a 2-0 fastball from Michael Wacha over the wall in right field to send San Francisco to its third World Series in five years.

In a matter of months, Ishikawa went from contemplating retirement to hitting a pennant-winning home run. Suffice it to say that was his last great moment in the Majors, though what a great moment it was. The Pirates picked him up off waivers from the Giants the following year, and he hit .224 with a homer in 38 games for Pittsburgh, retiring in 2016.

Before he was big: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs

Rizzo was certainly on the rise by this point in his career, but 2014 became his breakout campaign, when he turned in a .913 OPS with 32 home runs in 140 games for Chicago. Ironically, it began with a rough Opening Day, when he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. But he started heating up along with the temperature, hitting .301/.384/.565 with 15 homers from June 1 through July 31.

Rizzo had broken out, but the Cubs remained in "trust the process" mode, finishing in last place in the NL Central for the fifth straight year. Things would turn around quickly from there, though -- the Cubs reached the postseason in 2015, and in '16, Rizzo helped lead the club to its first World Series title since 1908.

Last call: Travis Snider, OF, Pirates

Like Rizzo, Snider had a breakout year in 2014. But unlike Rizzo, Snider's trajectory had hit its peak. Snider, who went 0-for-3 on Opening Day, went on to post career-best numbers, hitting .264/.338/.438 (117 OPS+) with 13 homers in 140 games for Pittsburgh. But the Bucs traded him to the Orioles the following January, and he struggled with Baltimore, posting a .659 OPS over 69 games before being released. He signed back with Pittsburgh five days later, on Aug. 20, but would only appear in 18 games, hitting .192. He hasn't appeared in the Majors since, but was a non-roster invitee to D-backs camp this spring.