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Bucs' double-play combo eager for 2013 season

Walker continues to get stronger as season approaches

The sarcastic references began a long time ago and probably will not stop any time soon: The Pirates have got to stop letting 19-inning games kill them.

You know the drill. In 2011, they lose in 19 in Atlanta. In 2012, they win in 19 in St. Louis. After those marathons, the Pirates proceed to go a collective 31-71 and hard-fall out of two pennant races.

It makes for an ironic punch line and a neat bow to tie atop two collapses -- but it misses the real point, certainly as far as the 2012 fade was concerned.

More accurately, four days before the Pirates and the Cardinals rumbled, Neil Walker tumbled. The dislocated finger suffered by the second baseman in a first-inning spill against the Dodgers had a lot more to do with their fold.

Entering that Aug. 15 game in PNC Park, the Bucs still held the lead for the National League's top Wild Card playoff spot. After Walker fell over Mark Ellis attempting to complete a double play on Matt Kemp's grounder, they went 15-31.

As ugly as that dislocation was -- Walker at the time described his right little finger as looking "like a backward 'Z'" until it was snapped back into place -- he remarkably returned to the starting lineup five days later. But he was very compromised and lasted only another week before a herniated disk in his lower back essentially finished his season.

In those final 46 games, Walker had a total of 52 at-bats with 10 hits (.192) and two RBIs. Compared to his prior .290-14-65 resume, the toll of his loss could not be minimized.

Thus, neither can the glee and optimism fueled by his return to full health. Walker and shortstop Clint Barmes return as the Bucs' double-play combination, arguably the two thinnest positions on the field last season.

Walker completed his physical rehab from the back issue -- which ultimately forced him to totally shut it down with 10 games left in the season -- in early December and since then has been on his normal offseason routine. The Pirates were convinced enough of his well-being to package Brock Holt, who replaced Walker for much of September, with Joel Hanrahan in a post-Christmas deal with the Red Sox.

"Everything is going good. I've had no setbacks all offseason," Walker said from his winter home in Bradenton, Fla., where he is working out regularly at IMG Academy with teammates, including Pedro Alvarez. "The intensity of my workouts have been above and beyond where I was [a couple of months ago]."

Walker's absence from the Pirates' recent week of voluntary workouts at Pirate City may have led some to wonder if it had anything to do with his injury, but the Pittsburgh kid was out of the country at the time on a planned family vacation.

On hand for those workouts was Barmes, getting an early start on continuing to rehabilitate his offensive reputation after a challenging beginning to his first season with the Bucs. The veteran began that process by hitting .271 in his final 50 games, but he had hit .207 prior to that and couldn't even get off "the interstate" permanently until July 1.

"I dug myself into a pretty deep hole and had to spend the rest of the year trying to climb out," Barmes told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review during the workouts. "I was trying to get my legs more involved, which slowed everything down and got my timing off. It was a grind. I'm expecting to have a better start than I did last year."

The slowed bat had made Barmes especially vulnerable to pitches on the outer half of the plate, as he fell into a trap of trying to pull everything.

Even when he was having trouble turning over the lineup from his spot in the bottom of the order, Barmes excelled at turning away the other team. His steady defense, in fact, got him a GIBBY nomination for Defensive Player of the Year.

Despite Barmes' early-season struggles and Walker's late-season injury, the pair did combine for 22 homers and 114 RBIs. On what was an overall down season for middle-infield offense, the run production was third best in the National League, behind only the 127 RBIs between the Nationals' Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa, and the 122 by the Cubs' Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney.

Although they entered the offseason with veteran infield help high on their wish list, the Pirates thus far return the same cast. One possible exception is Ivan De Jesus, who came from Boston in the deal involving Hanrahan and Holt.

Otherwise, Josh Harrison again figures to be the primary backup at both spots, supplemented by prospects who got limited exposure in 2012: Chase d'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer.

d'Arnaud, who appeared in 48 games in 2011 when injuries decimated the Pirates, could play an interesting role if manager Clint Hurdle puts heavy emphasis on fixing last season's woeful running game. With speed that is more savvy than raw, d'Arnaud was successful on 34 of 39 steal attempts with Triple-A Indianapolis.

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