Tyler Walker's view of crunch time
These days, downtime is toughest for Tyler Walker. When he climbs a mound, he knows how to shove aside the notion of pitching for his job. He's used to that. He's been up and down from Class AAA three times with two teams in the past three years.
When Walker is not pitching, when he is away from the park or working on a crossword puzzle in the clubhouse, the state of his immediate future rattles around his mind. "You read articles and you have thoughts," he said.
Within the next nine days, Walker is going to receive life-changing news. Either he'll make the Washington Nationals as the last man in their bullpen or he'll be sent to the minor leagues. Jesse English, the reliever Walker is competing with, is 25 has never pitched above Class AA. If English makes the team, it's found money. Walker is 33 and has pitched in the majors every year since 2004. If he doesn't make the team, he'll have to wonder if it is a nudge toward the downside of his career.
"I wouldn't say he's safe to be on there," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "You do the math, you can only carry 11 or 12 pitchers. He's not safe and he's not unsafe. He's competing."
Walker helped himself today. He retired all four batters he faced and struck out three, the latest step in his recovery from a brutal start to the spring. After his first two outings, Walker wondered if he would get a third. He had a 37.12 ERA and a 5.25 WHIP. He also had an aching back and mechanics gone haywire.
Looking for a team to latch on with this offseason, Walker lifted weights and played long toss relentlessly, a regimen designed to add velocity to his fastball. He wanted to prove to the Nationals how hard he could throw, no matter the pain he felt in his lower back.
"I never refuse the ball," Walker said. "That's just the type of player I am. Even if I'm not 100 percent - and who is 100 percent? - I'll take it."
In his first outings, his delivery unraveled because of it. Overexerting and compensating for his back trouble, Walker yanked his neck to the right, which meant the ball would jerk the same way. His pitches usually sailed out of the strike zone. When they didn't, his motion allowed batters a perfect view of the release. "Hitters live for that," Walker said. He had made a career of commanding pitches low in the strike zone.
"I came out trying to overly impress and trying to throw balls by guys," Walker said. "I'm smarter than that. It's frustrating. I was more disappointed in my approach than my results."
The Nationals gave him another chance. Walker spoke with Riggleman, pitching coach Steve McCatty and General Manager Mike Rizzo. He told them, "That's not me. That's not how I throw the ball."
"He wasn't really ready to compete his first couple times in spring training," Riggleman said. "I think we're seeing the real guy now."
Despite improvement, Walker's spot on the team remains a question. He signed a split contract with the Nationals: If he lands with the majors he'll make $650,00; if he is sent to the minors he'll make $120,000. The difference stays on his mind when he's not pitching. When he is, he blocks it out.
"I think I've been doing that my whole career," Walker said. "I just got to keep working. You never have it under control. You can't get too down on yourself. You can't get too high. If your focus is other than very singular in terms of, 'Get this guy out,' you're going to have problems no matter what the other distraction is."
The stress, in one regard, is good. It means Walker still has a chance.
"I'm ecstatic with the opportunity to pitch," Walker said. "A lot of other clubs, who knows what would have happened after the first two outings? I'm just grateful for the opportunity. Whatever happens, happens. I've got to get the next guy I face out."
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