Nightengale's Notebook: Christian Walker emerging from shadows to lead Diamondbacks

PHOENIX − He was one of the backup singers on stage with Beyonce.

He was that comedy writer for Kevin Hart.

He was that body-double for Shohei Ohtani.

He is Christian Walker of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

He’s the slugger that long has been hidden in obscurity behind greatness, only to emerge as one of the finest all-around first basemen in the game.

Oh, sure, no one is confusing him with Los Angeles Dodgers MVP candidate Freddie Freeman.

He’s not on the verge of hitting 50 homers like Atlanta’s Matt Olson, doesn’t possess the prodigious power of Mets slugger Pete Alonso, and isn’t going to win a batting title.

But, can this dude play.

Walker is the centerpiece of the D-backs’ glorious run to the postseason after losing 110 games just two years ago.

Walker, who won the Gold Glove award last year and should be headed for a repeat, leads the Diamondbacks with 30 homers and 91 RBI as their cleanup hitter, and has missed just six games the past two seasons.

“Christian, what can I say?’’ D-backs manager Torey Lovullo says. “He means so much to this team in so many ways. We’re not in this position without him.’’

This is the same guy who just a few years ago wondered whether he should give up his dream and just play overseas in Japan for a nice payday.

Walker, born and raised in Norristown, Pa., home of Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Mike Piazza, won the 2009 high school home run derby, beating a 16-year-old kid out of Las Vegas, Bryce Harper.

Christian Walker has been the centerpiece of the Diamondbacks’ run to the postseason.
Christian Walker has been the centerpiece of the Diamondbacks’ run to the postseason.

He helped lead South Carolina to back-to-back College World Series titles, and three times was selected to the all-tournament team.

He was an elite minor-league slugger and was the 2017 MVP of the Pacific Coast League, hitting .309 with 32 homers and 114 RBI for the Reno Aces.

Yet he sure was dealt a bad hand in the game of baseball opportunities.

He was selected in the fourth round of the 2012 draft by the Baltimore Orioles, making his debut a year later at the age of 23, believing it would be the beginning of a long, beautiful career.

“It was a quick debut,’’ Walker said, “and it was like, 'Oh yeah, I’m going to play in the big leagues for a long time.' The next thing I knew, it’s four years later, I don’t have much service time, and I’m getting DFA’d.’’

Walker’s growth was stunted by Orioles All-Star first baseman Chris Davis, who hit a major-league leading 53 home runs in 2013, and two years later, was signing a seven-year, $161 million contract to stay.

Buried in the minor leagues, Walker was designated for assignment in the spring of 2017. He was picked up by Atlanta, who already had an All-Star first baseman and future MVP in Freeman. His stay lasted 10 days.

The Cincinnati Reds, who already had an All-Star first baseman and MVP in first baseman Joey Votto, grabbed him, and promptly dumped him three weeks later.

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He was then picked up by the Diamondbacks, who already had Paul Goldschmidt at first base. Yep, another future MVP.

Four teams. Four power-hitting All-Star first basemen. Four blocked opportunities.

“I can almost laugh about it now,’’ Walker tells USA TODAY Sports. “But it was tough. There were a lot of emotions, man, a lot of moments. There was a time where I felt like entertaining the idea of going and playing overseas, and Japan, just trying to make some money and get a little financial security for my family.

“It was frustrating. You understand the business side of things and how a lot of it is outside of your control, but in the same sense, it’s like, 'Man, it feels unfair to work your whole life for something and then feel like you have to just wait for somebody else to leave their job.’’’

Walker, who spent four long years waiting for a break, finally got it Dec. 5, 2018, when the D-backs made the ill-fated decision to trade Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Luke Weaver, catcher Carson Kelly, infielder Andy Young and a competitive balance draft pick. It was a disaster for the D-backs, but a lottery ticket for Walker.

Walker originally was supposed to platoon at first base with Jake Lamb, but Lamb injured his left quadriceps seven games into the season. Walker was anointed the everyday first baseman and ran with the opportunity, hitting 29 homers with 73 RBI and an .825 OPS in 2019. He has hit 66 homers with 185 RBI the past two seasons, and has been clutch during Arizona's 2023 postseason push, hitting .306 with eight homers, 11 extra-base hits and 23 RBI in the last 30 games.

“I felt a part of me always had this in my tank,’’ Walker says, “but I was just waiting for the right opportunity, the right chance to show what I could bring to the table. I remember thinking, ‘This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for. Staying ready, staying ready, and capitalizing on the opportunity.'

“I was fortunate to be in that spot.’’

Still, it would be easy for Walker to be bitter. There were a lot of lost years, a lot of lost money. He’s 32 years old, and is still two years away from free agency.

“It’s easy to sit around and blame other people for decisions, and the business side of things,’’ Walker says. “But I believe that happened for a reason. I probably wasn’t ready. I needed to develop more. I needed to figure out who I was as a player before playing on the biggest stage.

“So, for me, it’s just about remaining accountable and what contributes, and what doesn’t.’’

Now, here he is, the undisputed leader in the D-backs clubhouse. He’ll be at his locker for hours after games, encouraging anyone to come hang with him. When they’re on the road, his hotel room is open, with plenty of pizza and refreshments. If something needs to be said, if a young player needs to be called out, Walker won’t hesitate.

He may just have four years of major-league service time, but in this youthful clubhouse, these rookies look up to him in reverence.

In a couple weeks, Walker may have to teach them how to spray champagne, too, celebrating their first postseason berth together, and the D-backs’ first since 2017.

“There’s a lot of pride knowing I have a leadership role on a team that has a real chance to be in the postseason,’’ he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.

“It’s been quite the journey.’’

A National mess

The Washington Nationals should be applauded for engineering a turnaround in their rebuild, but instead, ownership keeps getting in the way of their success.

They still have yet to finalize a contract extension for GM Mike Rizzo, who has brilliantly engineered the rebuild, refusing to give him a three-year contract.

They tried to strip the title of assistant GM from famed international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia, only for him to resign instead.

They have informed 14 scouts and special assistants that they aren’t coming back next year, while demoting scouting director Kris Kline. Gone are special assistants Willie Fraser, Jeff Harris, John Mirabelli, Mike Pagliarulo, Matt Ruebel and Jon Weil; pro scouts Jeff Harris, Mike Daughtry and Greg Hunter; crosschecker Alan Marr; and international scouts Mike Cadahia, David Leer, Jose Pepe Ortega and Alex Rodriguez.

Then, after approaching World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg two weeks ago to tell him they would like to have a lavish retirement ceremony for him, they changed their minds Thursday and said he will have to honor the remaining three years of his contract, which still has $105 million remaining.

NATIONALS: Lerner disputes reports about Stephen Strasburg's planned retirement

Strasburg has pitched only 31 ⅓ innings since 2021 and hasn’t thrown a pitch since June 2022 after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Doctors have told him he won’t pitch again, but the Nats still want him to report to spring training.

No respect: Cubs great took a back seat in 1998

Congratulations to Mark Grace, who had more hits than anyone in the '90s and retired with a career .303 batting average, was inducted into the Cubs’ Hall of Fame this weekend, along with shortstop Shawon Dunston.

While he had a fabulous 16-year career, he laughs and wonders just how many people saw his 184-hit season in 1998.

“The three biggest stories that year for the Cubs,’’ Grace tells USA TODAY Sports, “was Sammy Sosa and the home-run race, Kerry Wood and his assault on the record books with his strikeouts his rookie year, and the Cubs being in the playoff hunt. Back then, any time the Cubs were in the playoff hunt, that was a big deal.

“That said, a lot of fans were there to see Sammy, and I get it. I hit behind Sammy, so the semi-interesting story was that in the eighth or ninth inning, whether Sammy hit a home run, grounded out, or whatever, fans knew it was his last at-bat.

“I’d come up next, and it was now batting, 'No. 17, Mark Grace.’ and plenty of asses are heading to the exits.

“I’m like, 'Wait a minute, I’m pretty good, guys.’ It was kind of a reality check. They ain’t here to see you dude, they’re here to see the right fielder.’’

Around the basepaths

≻ Although the Oakland A’s will be moving to Las Vegas, the city may not be without a team very long.

High-ranking executives say that if Oakland officials and an ownership group secure a site to build a new ballpark, they will join Nashville, Tennessee, as the top two expansion sites in the next five years.

≻ The Los Angeles Angels, perhaps for the first time, are open to trading All-Star outfielder Mike Trout if he indicates to them that he wants out. Trout has exclusive no-trade rights and said recently that he wants to have a private conversation with the front office and ownership about their direction.

However, Trout, 32, would not generate the same trade return as in the past. He has not played more than 140 games since 2016, and will have missed 249 games the past three years if he doesn’t return this season.

He still has $248.15 million owed to him the next seven years.

≻ While former All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday changed his mind this spring and told the St. Lous Cardinals he no longer wanted to be their bench coach, he is now telling friends that he is interested in becoming a major-league manager in the next few years.

Holliday, whose son, Jackson, is the No. 1 prospect in the Baltimore Orioles organization, has another son, Ethan, a high school junior, whom scouts believe could be an even better prospect.

≻ Don’t expect Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell to follow David Stearns to New York, if Stearns indeed becomes their president of baseball operations. Counsell tells friends that he likely will take at least a year off to be around his family, with two sons playing collegiate baseball and two daughters in high school.

≻ The San Diego Padres are not expected to re-sign Cy Young favorite Blake Snell, believing he could command at least $200 million on the free-agent market.

Snell, 30, is 13-9 with an MLB-leading 2.52 ERA and 209 strikeouts. He could become the first pitcher in history to lead the major leagues in ERA and walks (92) in the same season.

≻ Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker was upset that a story surfaced about outfielder Chas McCormick’s playing time and his weight after their historic three-game sweep over the Texas Rangers.

“If I had something against his weight — and you can ask him — I wouldn't bring him banana pudding once a week,’’ Baker told reporters.

≻ The Colorado Rockies have reached out several times to CU football coach Deion Sanders, extending him an open invitation to come to a Rockies game and throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

They still are awaiting a response, realizing that Sanders suddenly is in heavy demand by everyone.

≻ Just how powerful is Atlanta’s offense?

Just ask reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt of the Cardinals.

“It might go down as the best offense in 100 years,” Goldschmidt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I think they’re so consistent. They take their walks, obviously they’re driving the ball, and they don’t give away at-bats. Basically, everything you want in a hitter, they almost all do it, and do it throughout the whole game.

“Definitely can put up what they’re doing against probably the top five offenses of all time.”

≻ D-backs first base coach Dave McKay reflecting on Mark McGwire’s generosity during his historic home-run season 25 years ago.

“He really did a neat thing,’’ McKay said. “For the last month of the season, when he was passing different milestones, he would get actual balls from that game, bring them in, and then he would autograph them and leave one for each of the players and the coaches. It was pretty special. He wanted us to share in it.’’

≻ Former Cardinals third-base coach Rene Lachemann on McGwire’s 1998 season:

“I’ve seen a lot of records,’’ he said. “I saw Catfish Hunter’s perfect game. I saw Rickey Henderson break the stolen-base record. But when McGwire broke Roger Maris’s record, that topped them all. That was a record I thought would never be broken.’’

≻ Kudos to Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays, who have gone 15-8 since prized shortstop Wander Franco went on the restricted list while MLB and authorities in the Dominican Republic investigate allegations Franco had inappropriate relationships with a minor.

≻ Marlins manager Skip Schumaker certainly is doing a fabulous job, keeping the Marlins in the race even after losing ace Sandy Alcantara (right forearm flexor strain) and All-Star hitter Jorge Soler (right oblique strain) the same day.

They entered Saturday having won seven of their last eight games, sitting just one-half game behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for the final NL wild-card berth.

≻ The hottest pitcher on the planet since July 4 is young Mariners pitcher Logan Gilbert. He is 8-0 with a 2.89 ERA with 78 strikeouts in 74 ⅔ innings, with the Mariners going 10-2 in his 12 starts.

≻ Toronto Blue Jays outfielder George Springer continues his powerful effort to raise awareness and support kids who stutter. He is the spokesman of SAY (The Stuttering Association for the Young, a non-profit organization that provides support, advocacy and life-changing experiences for young people who stutter, ages 3-18). Springer is hosting the George Springer Bowling Benefit in Toronto on Sunday night.

≻ The most highly-sought after free agent this winter may be Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who threw a no-hitter in his last start, the 100th in Japanese pro baseball history.

Teams have sent waves of scouts to watch Yamamoto, 25, and Yankees GM Brian Cashman was on hand to witness Yamamoto’s feat. Yamamoto is expected to be posted this winter and sought after by virtually every team in baseball.

Yamamoto, a star for Japan’s gold medal-winning team in the WBC, has led the Pacific League in victories, ERA and strikeouts every year since 2021, winning their Sawmura award as Japan’s best pitcher the last two seasons.

≻ Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright was able to pitch one final time in front of his friends and family in his hometown of Atlanta this winter, resurrecting memories of his childhood.

“Certainly a lot of excitement around baseball in my youth just watching the great team throughout the 1990s, and the biggest part of my day every day was watching the Braves game, 7:35 TBS,” Wainwright told reporters. “Francisco Cabrera hitting the ball to left field (in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS), I thought that was probably the highlight of my life. Watching Sid Bream slide home. I’ll never forget that."

Wainwright has an autographed picture of Bream’s famous slide in his home.

≻ Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, 36, whose season ended with a ruptured Achilles, still wants to continue playing as long as the Pirates will have him. McCutchen hit .256 with a .378 on-base percentage, and hit 19 doubles, 12 home runs and 43 RBI. He is sitting on 299 career home runs.

“I’ve vocalized that plenty of times about wanting to be here,’’ McCutchen told Pittsburgh reporters. “It’s not going to feel right anywhere else.’’

≻ Guardians manager Terry Francona has told the front office that he is done after the season, needing shoulder and hernia surgeries in the offseason.

The Guardians say they won’t conduct a managerial search until after the season.

≻ While the Rockies are the latest team to have their TV deal blow up in their face, leaving them scrambling to find a new partner, the Dodgers continue to ride high on their staggering 25-year, $8.35 billion TV deal.

It’s hard to imagine any club will ever get a better deal in MLB history.

≻ Lucas Giolito’s free-agent value certainly has taken quite the tumble. He entered Saturday with a 1-6 record and an 8.50 ERA since leaving Chicago, giving up 13 homers and walking 18 batters in 35 ⅔ innings.

He was 6-6 with a 3.89 ERA before being traded to the Los Angeles Angels, and picked up off waivers by the Guardians.

≻ Remember when the A’s opened the season going 12-50, the second-worst start in MLB history, and were on pace to lose 120 games, equalling the most losses in modern-day history, achieved the 1962 New York Mets.

Well, the A’s (44-97) are no longer even the worst team in the league, with the Kansas City Royals (44-98) now with that distinction.

“The A’s have a really bright future,” rookie outfielder Lawrence Butler told reporters. “People might think of us as a laughingstock of the league this year, but next year, it’s going to be a whole different story.”

≻ The Commissioner’s office is beaming with attendance up 9.1% over a year ago, averaging 28,989 a game. It  would be the largest single-season attendance increase since 1992-1993. There are 24 teams who have had an attendance increase, led by the Philadelphia Phillies, who have drawn 664,857 more fans than a year ago after 68 home games.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Christian Walker emerging from the shadows to lead Diamondbacks