Walker, Pirates lean on turning double plays

Bucs entered Saturday with Major League-best 66 twin killings

Walker, Pirates lean on turning double plays

ATLANTA -- Elite double-play combos have been a baseball staple since the era of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. But the combination that has the Pirates leading the Majors by a wide margin -- through Friday's games, their 66 twin-killings were nine more than any other team's -- is unique because it goes Mercer-or-Kang-to-Walker-to-Alvarez.

Neil Walker had started 50 of the 54 games at second base, while Jordy Mercer (39) and Jung Ho Kang (15) have alternated at shortstop. In circumstances where stability and familiarity with one another rules, the Bucs' standing in double plays would seem to be a testament to Walker's ability to adapt.

Walker brushed off the prop, instead hailing two other components: His shortstop partners, and the Pirates pitchers.

"I think it's a testament to them," Walker said of Mercer and Kang. "My job on the receiving end is just to get to the bag, and let them know where I like [to get] the ball. Both are extremely accurate and have good arms. When you can anticipate where the ball's gonna be and how it will be coming at you, it makes my job a lot easier.

"And with our pitching staff, the stuff guys are throwing up there ... they work the zone and get a lot of strikes. A.J. [Burnett], [Charlie] Morton and [Francisco] Liriano always get a lot of grounders, and Gerrit's [Cole] ground-ball rate is higher than it's been."

Manager Clint Hurdle thinks Walker is being too humble, crediting him with being "a key cog" in the Bucs' growing repute as double-play impresarios.

"Neil is the principal in those multiple combinations. It's one of his strengths," said Hurdle, including sheer guts among the second baseman's assets. "He turned one the other day and got absolutely wiped out. He's got courage, guts -- he'll hang around the bag. He's not one to look to just get the force and get out of the way."

As a converted catcher/third baseman, when Walker moved to second he was mentored by Mr. Double Play himself, Pirates Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski.

"The stuff we worked on still resonates with me," Walker said. "A lot of it has to do with what you do around the bag, receiving the double-play feed and getting my feet moving in the right direction, not wasting time getting the ball out of my glove. Those things are extremely important to turning the double play, regardless of how strong your arm is.

"If you can catch the ball and get rid of it quickly, you'll have a good shot at turning it ... that's kinda been my recipe."

That definitely was the recipe for Mazeroski, whose wizardry in quickly relaying double-play feeds earned him the nickname No Hands.

"I did not know that," Walker said with a smile. He gets how Maz's label came about. "His hands are probably still quicker than 95 percent of second basemen today."

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 and on his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.