MORGANTOWN - As a home-grown, hometown boy from the Pittsburgh suburbs, Neil Walker was enjoying the Pirates' drive to their first winning season in nearly 20 years. That is, until persistent back problems put him on the shelf.
He became increasingly frustrated sitting on the bench as those dreams of the post-season and then a winning season collapsed in the season's final days.
"There is nothing worse for an every-day player to go from doing that to having to watch from the sidelines because you're injured," Walker said Wednesday during the Pirates Winter Caravan stop in Morgantown. "I tried to come back (too early), and I wasn't helping the team. It was a really frustrating situation."
The Inter-Mountain photo by John Wickline
Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker signs an autograph for a fan during Wednesday's Winter Caravan stop in Morgantown. Walker, who missed the final month of the season with a nagging back problem, said he expects to be 100 percent healthy when spring training begins in February.
Walker felt those same frustrations as the fans, but said people should not just focus on the end of the season.
"I know the fans are frustrated with how the season has gone the last two years," he said.
"But we have made a lot of strides. In 2010, we played about four months of good baseball. Last year, we played about five months of good baseball. So it's only natural for 2013 that we play six months of good baseball."
Six months of good baseball, roughly the length of the season, could put the Pirates in high cotton when October rolls around. Walker said he has learned how he can be around at that point.
"Everybody has back issues," he said. "I have more information about it, and now I can keep it from happening again. I have learned how to keep it strong."
The bulk of the players have been together for more than a season now, creating a special team chemistry. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez said even more importantly, the Pirates learned they can compete on a daily basis.
"It's just a matter of finishing," Alvarez said.
"We learned through experience. We showed we can do it."
Alvarez, who hit a career-high 30 homers but struck out 180 times, said he has to improve his performance to a more consistent one to best put his team in a position to win.
"If I had my way, I would never have to make any adjustments," he said. "Those elite players - the Ryan Brauns, the Andrew McCutchens - they make those adjustments quicker. They don't spend as much time with the lows."