The second baseman has batted either at cleanup or No. 5, and the Pirates -- already going with Walker as an unconventional choice -- have no other options, really. They could use Garrett Jones or Casey McGehee, but neither is an everyday player, and a platoon in the cleanup slot is even more unconventional.
If nothing else, though, Walker has ranged from good to very good in the field. That's no small feat considering he's only in his second full season of playing the position. The Pirates' coaching staff has him playing more up the middle, which works to his strengths, but he's been responsible for the rest.
Well, he and Pittsburgh Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, winner of eight Gold Gloves. Maz instructs Walker each spring.
"Neil's positioning is better. He knows his pitchers and the hitters better," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's worked on his flexibility and losing his rigidity when turning the double play."
The latter has shown in a quicker release on pivots. Previously, Walker was staying on the bag far too long.
"I see big improvements," Hurdle said. "All the work in spring training with Maz has helped a great deal. He's just showing more athletic ability. He's learning the position at the major league level, which is unheard of."
RHP A.J. Burnett, recovering from a broken right orbital bone, was slammed for a nine-run second inning Wednesday in his second rehab outing for Class A Bradenton. He lasted just 1 2/3 innings after going 4 2/3 innings on Friday. Burnett is 0-2 with an 8.53 ERA, but he's struck out nine and walked just two in 6 1/3 innings. The timetable for his return remains some point in early May.
RF Nate McLouth made his first start Wednesday in Los Angeles, spelling RF Jose Tabata, who is off to a 3-for-18 start. "I need to be ready when called upon," said McLouth, who went 1-for-4. Tabata's struggles aren't new, as he hasn't been driving the ball with much authority since the start of spring training.
SS Clint Barmes broke out of an early slump with a third-inning home run, a solo shot to left field. Barmes was acquired for his glove, but the Pirates need to get at least some production from all parts of their order.
LF Alex Presley was challenged by management to be more efficient atop the order, including drawing walks to raise his on-base percentage. He hasn't drawn a walk but has a .333 average. "I'm working on my overall game," Presley said, "and I'm looking to improve in a lot of areas."
RHP Jason Grilli gave up a home run to Dodgers RF Andre Ethier on Tuesday, costing the Pirates a 2-1 loss. It marked the first earned run charged to the bullpen. "They've been great, all of them," manager Clint Hurdle said. "And Jason was doing well, too. He left a pitch up and out over the plate, and that's what's going to happen to those." The Pittsburgh relievers weren't as sharp Wednesday, allowing two runs in three innings.
By The Numbers: 9—Runs for the Pirates through five games.
Quote To Note: "If you're thinking 'stinking,' you're not going to succeed." —Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.