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Pirates winter caravan: Walker optimistic Bucs can end skid, become a winner

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said the back problems that plagued him at the end of the 2012 season are gone.

"Fortunately, I'm back to 100 percent health," he said Tuesday night at the Pirates Caravan stop at Charleston's downtown Ramada Inn.  

Walker missed 27 of the Pirates' last 35 games with a herniated disc in his back. His return should put a smile on Pirates fans' faces. He knows all about being a Pirates fan. A Pittsburgh native, Walker's been one for as long as he can remember.

"It's my job, but more than that, I'm not just a fan of Pirates baseball and the organization, but of the city of Pittsburgh itself."

The 27-year-old switch-hitter was born in Pittsburgh and graduated from Pine-Richland High School in nearby Gibsonia, Pa., when the Pirates drafted him 11th overall in 2004.

He's been a lifelong Bucs fan, but that life hasn't seen a ton of success come out of Three Rivers Stadium or PNC Park.

Walker was barely in grade school the last time the Pirates had a winning season. That streak of losing seasons now has reached 20 years.

Despite the lean years, Walker said his optimism, both as a fan and a member of the club, hasn't wavered.

"The thing I always say is that I'm a Pittsburgh person through and through, in terms of being a fan and never waning through the bad times," he said.

Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez can imagine there's a little added pressure to being a hometown guy on a Major League Baseball team. Alvarez said Walker handles it well, and works like crazy to help return the Pirates to their winning ways.

"If there's anyone that gets more frustrated (with losing) ... there's not another guy," Alvarez said. "He hates losing, obviously, especially being from Pittsburgh. He knows the history. He knows how long it's been. He's a great guy to have on the team."

When healthy, Walker did his part on the field in 2012. He hit .280 with 14 home runs and 69 RBI in 129 games this past season. He feels the Pirates are doing their part as well, bringing in players who will be stable, long-term pieces to the puzzle.

"When you do find that and you have success on both ends, the offensive and defensive end, you don't have to go out and get several guys each year," he said. "You can get pieces, small pieces to add."

Since Walker joined the starting lineup in 2010, he's seen a lot of change for the better. After winning just 57 games in 2010, the Bucs made a big leap, winning 72 games in 2011 and 79 in 2012. With what he sees around the clubhouse, Walker feels the Pirates are on their way to returning to the success of which he has only fleeting childhood memories.

"We're very, very close to getting back to playing good baseball," he said.

Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at derek.redd@dailymail.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.


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