PITTSBURGH -- When fans returning to PNC Park for this week's homestand pick up All-Star Game ballots, or vote online, they can check off Neil Walker not only because of provincial pride, but because the Pittsburgh Kid is killing it.
Walker comes home leading the Bucs both in home runs (nine) and RBIs (25) -- not a slight accomplishment in a lineup that includes both the National League's reigning co-homer champ (Pedro Alvarez) and Most Valuable Player (Andrew McCutchen) Award winner.
Oh, Walker also tops NL second basemen in both categories, possibly setting up a Pennsylvania duel to start for the league in the July 15 All-Star Game in Minnesota's Target Field.
Five-time All-Star Chase Utley of the Phillies is mounting another strong campaign, batting .340 with 22 RBIs. Utley has homered only three times, but he sports a superior slugging percentage because of his 17 doubles.
With a solid road trip, Walker protected his reputation as a fierce streak hitter. When he gets hot, pitchers have a tough time finding his off button.
"Neil has the ability to get hot, and when he does, it doesn't matter whether you pitch him soft or hard, he stays on pitches," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've seen him rise to the occasion before."
Walker used a healthy offseason to work on some specific changes in his approach, and the early results have been dramatic. Most apparent is the switch-hitter's production from his historically weaker right side (.345 with an OPS of .907) but perhaps less evident is his contact rate.
Walker entered this season with a career average of about a strikeout every five at-bats. Through 43 games and in 166 at-bats, he has fanned 23 times. Yes, he has more RBIs than punchouts.
The potential Walker-Utley race faces a major obstacle from Big Apple polls. Due to sheer demographics, bona fide New York candidates have a built-in edge, and the Mets' Daniel Murphy is having a very respectable season, batting .318 with 17 RBIs.
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. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.