NEW YORK -- R.A. Dickey, the knuckleball specialist who faced the Pirates on Thursday in a quest for his 20th victory, is often compared to Tim Wakefield based on their pitching styles and on how both had to persevere through hard times to stardom.

Jeff Banister is a guy in the best position to confirm those comparisons.

"Timmy essentially paved the way for Dickey," said the Bucs' bench coach, whose tenure in the organization not only dates back to Wakefield's 1992-93 debut with the Pirates, but who used to be his Minor League teammate.

"Wakefield and I commiserated to each other about tough at-bats," said Banister, recalling the fact that the Pirates actually drafted -- eighth round, 1988 -- the future 200-game winner as a first baseman.

"Neither one of us could hit," Banister continued. "He'd fool around with a knuckleball when we'd play catch before games, and one day our manager, Woody Huyke, saw the action on that thing and suggested he might want to try pitching.

"That's how the whole thing began. Wake threw a fairly-hard knuckleball at first, but then he lost the feel for that and had to return to the Minors to figure out a different, softer way to throw it. And he learned to throw it at different speeds. He had to re-invent himself."

Hence the analogies between the recently-retired Boston great and Dickey, who also throws a variable-speed knuckler, as opposed to the classic floater, and is a 37-year-old hailed as a master of reinvention.

Walker to meet with specialist to help back

NEW YORK -- Neil Walker will see a specialist on Friday upon his return to Pittsburgh, after sitting out the final three of the four-game series in New York. It is a previously-scheduled appointment to diagnose his progress with a lower-back problem, not in response to any new development.

The possibility of the second baseman remaining shelved for the season's final homestand, and final six games, is still under consideration.

"We're still evaluating, working through that," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're trying to make sure we get the right diagnosis. We also have to stay connected to the player, listen to what he has to say."

In Walker's absence, Josh Harrison made his third straight start at second base -- and fifth consecutive start overall. Harrison was 7-for-18 in the first four of those, and was hitting .308 (16-for-52) in his last 13 starts.

Worth noting

• Beginning with Thursday's game, Pedro Alvarez had three remaining shots at a 41-year high for homers in day games by a Pirates player. Willie Stargell had 19 in 1971; Alvarez has 18.

• In Friday night's opener of their upcoming season-ending homestand, the Pirates will top last season's final attendance of 1,940,429. Before the six games with the Reds and the Braves are over, the Bucs will cross the 2 million barrier for the first time since 2000, PNC Park's inaugural season.

The Last Word
"I'm never surprised by what can happen in a player's free agent year. It's a wild card. I've seen players get to a really good place, because it frees them up. I've also seen players struggle, because it locks them up."
- Hurdle, on Kevin Correia having a chance to match his career high of 12 wins in his "walk" year.