5/19/2014 3:03 P.M. ET
Walker has legitimate case for All-Star nod
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- When fans returning to PNC Park for this week's homestand pick up All-Star Game ballots, or vote online, they can check off Neil Walker not only because of provincial pride, but because the Pittsburgh Kid is killing it.
Walker comes home leading the Bucs both in home runs (nine) and RBIs (25) -- not a slight accomplishment in a lineup that includes both the National League's reigning co-homer champ (Pedro Alvarez) and Most Valuable Player (Andrew McCutchen) Award winner.
Oh, Walker also tops NL second basemen in both categories, possibly setting up a Pennsylvania duel to start for the league in the July 15 All-Star Game in Minnesota's Target Field.
Five-time All-Star Chase Utley of the Phillies is mounting another strong campaign, batting .340 with 22 RBIs. Utley has homered only three times, but he sports a superior slugging percentage because of his 17 doubles.
With a solid road trip, Walker protected his reputation as a fierce streak hitter. When he gets hot, pitchers have a tough time finding his off button.
"Neil has the ability to get hot, and when he does, it doesn't matter whether you pitch him soft or hard, he stays on pitches," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've seen him rise to the occasion before."
Walker used a healthy offseason to work on some specific changes in his approach, and the early results have been dramatic. Most apparent is the switch-hitter's production from his historically weaker right side (.345 with an OPS of .907) but perhaps less evident is his contact rate.
Walker entered this season with a career average of about a strikeout every five at-bats. Through 43 games and in 166 at-bats, he has fanned 23 times. Yes, he has more RBIs than punchouts.
The potential Walker-Utley race faces a major obstacle from Big Apple polls. Due to sheer demographics, bona fide New York candidates have a built-in edge, and the Mets' Daniel Murphy is having a very respectable season, batting .318 with 17 RBIs.
Polanco steamrolling through International League
PITTSBURGH -- The Polanco Press -- top prospect Gregory Polanco's relentless campaign to elicit that callup to the Pirates -- did not lose any steam last week.
The 22-year-old outfielder was named International League Batter of the Week after hitting .591 and slugging 1.000 in six games with Indianapolis.
Polanco continues to virtually flaunt the Bucs' agenda for him to accrue Triple-A experience prior to a promotion. He has been the IL Batter of the Week twice in five weeks with the Indians, also getting the award for April 7-13.
This latest explosion grew Polanco's season numbers to a .389 average and 1.076 OPS, with 38 RBIs in 41 games.
Word of Polanco's latest honor comes the day after the Pirates lost two outfielders to hamstring injuries. Jose Tabata departed the nightcap of Sunday's doubleheader in New York with tightness in the right hamstring a few innings before Starling Marte was pulled with tightness in the left hamstring.
Both players felt they would be fit to return following Monday's off-day, when the Bucs open a six-game homestand with Tuesday night's Interleague game against Baltimore.
However, their uncertain status certainly adds intrigue to when the club might be ready to page Polanco. When outfield help was needed a week ago, the Pirates called up Jaff Decker, who returned to Indianapolis after going hitless in three pinch-hitting appearances. There is yet another left-handed hitter in the Indians' outfield -- Chris Dickerson, a Major League vet carrying a .342 average.
Patient McCutchen taking walks, not scoring
PITTSBURGH -- Through the first quarter of the season, Andrew McCutchen's patience has been tried -- and he has passed with walking colors.
"I checked the other day, and I'm fifth [in the National League] in pitches per at-bat. It shows you I am getting pitched differently," said McCutchen, who continues to lead the league with 34 walks. "I've always been a patient hitter, so that part isn't hard for me to adjust to."
Manager Clint Hurdle also applauds McCutchen's willingness to take the walks and let others behind him do the heavy lifting.
"Cutch has shown really good discipline," Hurdle said. "His walks are up, his strikeouts are down. He's taking what they give him."
The problem: It is taking away from the Bucs' offense.
Teams have not had to pay for their decisions to pitch around the defending NL MVP Award winner. Few of McCutchen's walks have turned into runs; he has scored only 21, and the walks have been followed by cleanup hitters (mostly Pedro Alvarez, with Gaby Sanchez also filling that spot a couple of times) going 8-for-31.
Most significantly, the strategy has turned off the Bucs' right-handed power. McCutchen himself has only four home runs -- three of them in consecutive games on April 21-23 -- and he has not had an extra-base hit of any kind in 35 at-bats since May 5.
Neil Walker has hit eight of his nine home runs from the left side, and Alvarez also has eight. On Sunday, Starling Marte hit his fourth, tying McCutchen for the team lead in home runs by a right-handed hitter.
"It's all about getting your pitch, seeing it and being ready to hit it. It's that one pitch," said McCutchen, who still feels he gets one hittable pitch each at-bat but, "a lot of times before, that pitch was a fastball. Now, it's a little different; it may be a curve or a changeup."
First number -- last word
5-4: The 18-25 Pirates' record in games started -- at two different positions -- by Josh Harrison.
"You don't see guys lay out 320 feet away very often, but [Harrison] did." -- Yankees manager Joe Girardi, in the New York Daily News on Harrison's run-saving diving catch in Yankee Stadium's left-field corner in the eighth inning of the nightcap of Sunday's doubleheader.
• Pirates pitchers' gopher problem has not only been a road worry. They have allowed 19 home runs in the first 23 home games -- matching the total surrendered in the final 46 home games of 2013.
• Tony Watson needed 37 pitches to get through 1 1/3 innings in Sunday's nightcap, the fifth most he has made in 198 appearances with the Bucs. Three of his four highest pitch counts have come against the Cardinals, topped by the 42 in three innings on Aug. 15, 2013.
• Jason Grilli (left oblique) is set to throw bullpen sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, and his response to the back-to-back test may dictate whether the Pirates will activate him without a Minor League rehab detour.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.