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Richard Justice

No. 82 is special, but Walker's sights set on October

No. 82 is special, but Walker's sights set on October

ARLINGTON -- Pirates second baseman Neil Walker is a Pittsburgh guy, so, sure, this moment means more to him than it does to some of his teammates. To them, it's simply another brick in the wall. Ultimately, though, he feels the same way.

"It's a stepping stone in the direction we're trying to go as a team and as an organization," Walker said.

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Walker spoke those words over and over Monday night as reporters approached his locker looking for some larger meaning in a 1-0 victory over the Rangers.

All it really means is that the Pirates will have a winning record for the first time in 21 years, thanks to their 82nd victory. Someday, these players may appreciate that accomplishment, too.

For now, though, they're playing for so much more. At 82-61, they're a game behind the first-place Cardinals in the National League Central and a game in front of the third-place Reds.

Baseball people can go their entire careers and not be part of a division race like this one, and the Bucs are close enough to the finish line to comprehend that they've got a chance to do something special.

So that's what Walker had in mind on Monday night. He has seen the organization improve dramatically. It's far different than the one that lost 105 games in 2010, Walker's first full season.

"My faith in the organization has never changed," Walker said. "My thoughts on how great an organization this is has not changed. Like I said, this is a good day."

From general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle to center fielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and others, an 82nd victory represents years of hard work and plenty of frustration.

For Walker, though, it's more than that. Almost as soon as the game ended, he heard from his dad, Tom, who played six seasons in the big leagues and is also a Pittsburgh guy.

"Congrats on 82," he texted. "Keep grinding."

That's how his son sees it, too.

"It's probably more important to me than all the other guys in this room," Walker said. "But this is just another win on the road to winning the division and making the playoffs and doing some damage. But I understand the significance of this game more than at least all the players in here."

Walker remembers "having my heart broken" during the 1992 playoffs when the Pirates lost Game 7 of the NL Championship Series to the Braves. He was also there when PNC Park opened in 2001.

But then, Walker looked at things differently.

"I was dreaming of playing Major League Baseball," he said.

The Bucs took Walker in the first round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. Five years later, he made his debut for his hometown team.

On Monday night, Walker motioned toward Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister.

"I've seen different general managers. I've seen different owners," Walker said. "The only person who is still the same is Jeff Banister. He's the only person who's been here since I've been here in 2004. It's been special."

The Bucs were in first place in the NL Central for parts of July 2011 and '12, but finished both seasons badly. Those two seasons surely made this 82nd victory a bit more significant.

"I think when you get dragged through the mud and get beat up, especially at the time of year we did the last two years, it makes you stronger as individuals and stronger as a team and an organization," Walker said.

"That's experience. That's a big part of baseball and growing as players and as individuals. I certainly think the last two years have been instrumental in helping us get better, more so the tough times than the good times."

With the 82nd victory in the books, Walker is anxious to start talking about what could lay in front of the Pirates the next few weeks.

As the interviews began to wrap up Monday night, Walker said he hoped that this chapter of the resurrection of the Bucs had been buried forever.

"I want to stop answering these questions," he said. "I want to start talking playoff baseball. We're glad this number is done."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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