Pirates call up former top pick Neil Walker

The 90-mile stretch of Interstate 74 that links Indianapolis

with Cincinnati has fast become Neil Walker’s favorite stretch of

road.

He’s driven it twice in the last two seasons, both times with

the major leagues as his final destination.

The Pittsburgh Pirates called up the former first-round draft

pick on Tuesday, rewarding him for his solid start at Triple-A

Indianapolis. Pittsburgh put first baseman Steve Pearce on the

15-day disabled list with a sprained right ankle, suffered on

Monday night.

The 24-year-old Walker was Pittsburgh’s top pick in June 2004 –

the 11th overall – as a catcher. He moved to third base in 2007 and

got his first promotion last September, driving over from

Indianapolis to join the Pirates in Cincinnati.

Did it again on Tuesday.

“It’s two hours and I think my cell phone went out several

times on the way, which was actually a good thing – watch the road

a little bit as oppose to talking on the phone the entire time,”

Walker said. “I’ve got that drive down.”

His next job is to stay in the majors for more than a month.

The switch-hitter batted .194 in 17 games (eight starts) last

September, striking out 11 times in 36 at-bats. With Pedro Alvarez

– a No. 2 pick in 2008 – in line to take over at third base

eventually, Walker decided to diversify during spring training and

started learning other positions.

He has played first base, second base and outfield, giving him

more chances to get into the lineup. He also picked it up at the

plate, batting .321 with six homers and 26 RBIs in 43 games. He led

the International League with 18 doubles and was second with 26

extra-base hits.

“I think that’s just part of the maturity process,” Walker

said. “I think it just took time for me to kind of come into my

own in terms of knowing what I do well, knowing what I don’t do

well, knowing how to take advantage of what I do well and going at

it with 100 percent confidence.”

With third baseman Andy LaRoche bothered by a sore back, Walker

had his spot in the lineup Tuesday against the Reds, batting

second.

“We’ll get him in as much as possible,” manager John Russell

said. “He gives us flexibility. That’s one of the reasons we moved

him around in spring training. We don’t want to lose sight of

second base – he’ll play some there, too. He was doing some very

good things in Triple-A.”

Learning to play second base provided was Walker’s biggest

adjustment. He has played mostly first base and third base.

“There’s so much that goes into playing second base,” he said.

“That’s been the largest learning curve.”

Walker could be at the forefront of a wave of new players.

Alvarez, outfielder Jose Tabata and right-hander Brad Lincoln are

expected to join him in the majors in the next few months, a group

of top prospects entrusted with breaking the franchise’s long cycle

of losing.

“It’s fun,” Walker said. “To watch those guys play on a daily

basis and know what special players those guys are – that makes

this special, too. Those three guys are not far behind. They’re

going to be up here pretty soon because they’re doing a tremendous

job at Triple-A.”