Neil Walker had to be a spectator during much of the Pittsburgh Pirates' late-season collapse in 2012 because of a herniated disk in his lower back. The switch-hitting second baseman is healthy in 2013 and looking to help his hometown team finally get things turned around.
Walker was limited to six starts last September because of his back problem, and his absence coincided with the Pirates falling out of the National League wild-card race. After a winter spent rehabbing, he declared himself "100 percent and ready to go."
Walker, 27, is thankful the disk did not rupture, which would have required surgery. He is also armed with a pregame regimen of exercises and stretching in an attempt to try to ensure he will not have a recurrence of the back issue.
"It takes about 20 minutes, and I'm going to have to do it for the rest of my career," he said. "It's not that big of a deal. It doesn't take that long. It's worth it to know I'm going to be healthy because I don't want to go through anything like I did at the end of last season."
Walker's 2012 went downhill at the exact same point as the rest of the team's fortunes soured.
Walker had his second five-RBI game in nine days on Aug. 8 as the Pirates beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 7-6 at PNC Park to move a season-high 16 games over .500 at 64-48.
However, the Pirates went 15-35 the rest of the way to end up with a 79-83 record, and Walker hit .218 with one home run and four RBI in 22 games from that point. Thus, a potentially outstanding season from the Gibsonia, Pa., product wound up being just a good one. He finished with a .280 batting average, a .342 on-base percentage, a .426 slugging percentage, 14 homers and 69 RBI.
Pittsburgh finished with a losing record for a 20th consecutive season, extending its major North American professional sports record.
"It was a disappointing way to finish," Walker said. "I grew up a Pirates fan, and I was as excited as anybody about what was going on. We were right in the middle of the pennant race, and it looked like we were, at the very least, going to have a winning season, and then it all fell apart. It was really tough to swallow."
However, Walker is optimistic about this season and hopes he and his teammates have learned from consecutive late-season collapses. The Pirates are a combined 37-78 from Aug. 1 in the last two years.
"I think we all know now that you have to keep your foot on the gas, keep your foot on the other team's throat," Walker said. "I know I'm not happy with how the way the last two seasons have ended, and I know the rest of the guys in this clubhouse aren't, either. This year, we need to play well for six months instead of four."