Back issues behind him, Walker making a final push

The picture painted by Tyler Walker’s stats from the last three seasons suggests he is a pitcher who does not make mistakes. He is the handiest of middle relievers, the low-maintenance craftsman who doesn’t walk hitters, gets beat with his best pitches if he, in fact, gets beat, and lets his manager know he’s a safe pick no matter the situation.

His WHIP with the Giants in 2007 was a paltry 1.116; it was 1.132 with the Phillies in 2009. Even in his worst year of the last three, 2008, Walker still only allowed 1.275 walks and hits per inning.

Relievers of his kind are affordable commodities whose value outpaces their cost. So when the Nationals spent $650,000 on him last winter, it seemed like a wise investment. Early this spring, it looked like nothing more than a waste of $650,000.

On March 9, Walker succeeded Stephen Strasburg in the phenom’s Nationals debut, and promptly sent his spring ERA rocketing to 37.12. His WHIP was 5.25, and everything he threw looked like a sacrificial offering to hitters.

There was something wrong, and Walker knew he couldn’t hide it any more. So he went to manager Jim Riggleman, general manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty and came clean, simply telling them, “That’s not me. That’s not how I throw the ball.”

Walker, as it turns out, was pitching with a lower back injury that threw his entire delivery out of whack. He was compensating for the ailment by trying to get more power from his shoulder, and wound up pulling his entire body to the left. That would either send the ball off-line or make it so batters could easily read its spin coming out of his hand and immediately know what pitch it was.

“It’s a fine line to walk, to show them you can pitch through nagging injuries and being hurt,” he said. “I was trying to overly impress and throw balls by guys. I’m smarter than that.”

A few mechanical adjustments with McCatty, though, helped Walker get things back under control. His spring ERA has dropped to 14.04 in eight outings -- still a ghastly figure, but nowhere near as bad as it was after his second outing. Walker pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings on Saturday against the Braves, and could still find a spot in the Nationals’ bullpen.

“He had a problem where he was pulling his head off everything,” McCatty said. “We started working on it before the games. The adrenaline starts rushing, and you want to start overpowering the ball. ... He’s got a nice track record. Whatever the final decision is, I’m sure we’ll find out. But he’s pitched in the big leagues, and I like the way he threw the ball today.”

Whatever security Walker’s guaranteed contract offers ends with its financial benefit; it’s not enough to scare the Nationals into keeping him on the roster, and manager Jim Riggleman made it clear on Saturday he hasn’t reserved a bullpen spot for Walker yet.

“I wouldn’t say he’s safe to be on there,” 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.”

Now, Walker can at least do that knowing he’s giving the Nationals a glimpse of what they paid for.

“Everything I’ve gotten in this game was through hard work,” Walker said. “You never have it under control. You’ve got to take the good times and the bad in the same stride.”