That big swing that Neil Walker showed on an Opening Day grand slam Friday didn't come out of nowhere.
In the final two weeks of spring training, before his slam boosted the Pirates to a 6-3 victory over the Cubs in Chicago, Walker had 12 hits in a span of 21 at-bats and was flooring management and the coaching staff with his approach, poise and, most of all, contact.
"Neil's been just outstanding," manager Clint Hurdle said of the switch hitter. "We've been working on his right-handed hitting most of the spring, and he's gotten better. But left-handed ... it's been very strong, the way he's waited for his pitch and gone after it once he sees it."
It was the first Opening Day for Walker, the 25-year-old native of suburban Pittsburgh. He was promoted by the Pirates for good last May and wound up being one of the National League's best rookies with a .296 average, 12 home runs and 66 RBI. His 53 RBI after the All-Star break were tied with Albert Pujols for third most in the league.
The Pirates were trailing, 2-0 in the fifth Friday when Walker stepped up with bases loaded. He worked the count full against Ryan Dempster, then tore into a 92 mph fastball and sent it 10 rows beyond the ivy in right.
Walker's formula sounded familiar.
"Dempster's pretty aggressive with everybody, getting ahead with fastballs," he said. "I was just looking for something to hit, use the big part of the field. Not looking to do too much. Fortunately, he made a mistake over the plate."
And then, as Hurdle put it, "He really got the barrel on it."
It remains to be seen if Walker being bumped up to No. 2 in the order will affect his power numbers, but it certainly didn't on this day.
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