Phillies reliever Walker wants taste of postseason
IT WAS Oct. 2, 2004, and if Tyler Walker looked hard enough from the visiting bullpen at Dodger Stadium, he could almost see the postseason. The San Francisco Giants had stormed into Chavez Ravine the night before, winning the first game of their season-e
IT WAS Oct. 2, 2004, and if Tyler Walker looked hard enough from the visiting bullpen at Dodger Stadium, he could almost see the postseason. The San Francisco Giants had stormed into Chavez Ravine the night before, winning the first game of their season-ending, three-game series against Los Angeles to cut their deficit in the National League West to two games while remaining tied with the Astros atop the wild-card standings. For 8 1/2 innings, the teams looked destined for a pivotal 162nd game, when Giants ace Jason Schmidt would take the mound. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, San Francisco held a 3-0 lead.
And then it happened . . .
First came a single. Then a walk. Then a strikeout. Then two more walks. Then an error. Suddenly, after an RBI single by a young outfielder named Jayson Werth, the game was tied.
Walker was warming in the bullpen for a potential showdown with Dodgers slugger Adrian Beltre when he heard the bat crack for the final time and watched Steve Finley's walkoff grand slam sail out of the park.
Seven runs. One out. Postseason hopes over.
"We were one game away," Walker, now pitching for his fourth major league team, recalled Sunday. "That feeling that year of going into September rolling, just that feeling of anticipation. Just get there. And once you get there, anything can happen . . . It was probably one of the hardest days I ever had in my career, walking off the field in Dodger Stadium."
One year ago, the stories were numerous: Jamie Moyer, looking for his first championship after 22 years in the game. Brad Lidge, striving to vanquish the disappointing memories of his last playoff run. Pat Burrell, free-agent-to-be, hoping to define his Philadelphia sports legacy.
Now, you look around the clubhouse, and all you see is jewelry. Of the 32 players on the active roster, 21 have World Series rings. Of the 25 players who were active when the roster expanded on Sept. 1, 22 have appeared in the playoffs.
Which brings us to Walker.
When the Mariners released him at the end of spring training, a spot on the postseason roster of the defending world champions was the furthest thing from his mind. The Phillies returned one of the top bullpens in the National League, stocked with such veteran righthanders as Chad Durbin, Clay Condrey and Chan Ho Park. But new general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was determined to improve the depth in the bullpen, and when few other teams came calling, Walker signed a minor league deal and reported to Triple A Lehigh Valley.
He pitched well for the IronPigs, much like the pitcher who posted a 4.24 ERA and saved 24 games for the Giants in 2004 and 2005. But 2 months into the season, the 33-year-old veteran was still in the minors. His contract had a clause that allowed him to become a free agent if he was not promoted to the majors by June 15. Walker talked with his agent and decided that, if given the option, he wanted to stay.
On June 14, the call came. Lidge, the closer, and lefthander Scott Eyre were on the disabled list, and stand-ins Sergio Escalona and Kyle Kendrick had just logged lengthy outings.
"It was just one of those deals - right spot at the right time," Walker said.
Walker made his first appearance on June 16 and would make six more before allowing his first run. He made a brief return to Lehigh Valley in mid-July, but since rejoining the Phillies on July 23, he has allowed only three runs in 14 appearances.
"Relievers are never happy," said Walker, a second-round draft pick of the Mets out of the University of California in 1997. "You are either pitching too much or pitching too little. You can't complain. Keep getting in the game. That's the biggest thing for us - they know you are down there."
Walker has forced himself onto the Phillies' radar. His 1.67 ERA ranks second on the club, behind only Eyre's 1.61. After recording the final two outs of the eighth inning in the Phillies' 5-4 win over the Mets in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader sweep, he has pitched a career-high 14 straight scoreless innings.
"Anytime you can get outs, it's big," manager Charlie Manuel said. "He's been doing a good job for us. That's great if people like that step up. I'd say his role has kind of increased since he's been here. When he got here, he was probably the 12th or 13th pitcher on our club. Now, he's moving up on the totem pole a little bit."
Provided he maintains his productivity for the final 3 weeks of the season, Walker will contribute to the tough decisions the Phillies will have to make when - and whether - they set their postseason roster. But the California native learned 5 years ago not to look too far ahead.
"My focus has to remain really singular," Walker said. "I know it is trite and mundane, but I really have to worry about the Nationals on Tuesday. If you get ahead of yourself in this game, somebody is there to kick you right in your stomach." *
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.