Bucs’ Walker starts rehab with Curve tonight

Neil Walker called Altoona “the most comfortable place” he played in during his minor league career, and the Pirates’ second baseman will return for at least a couple of games beginning tonight on a rehab assignment.

“It was fun to play there,” Walker, who played with the Curve in 2006-07, said Wednesday by phone. “When I was there, I had friends at Penn State, and a lot of times in minor league baseball you kind of feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but that was the most comfortable I felt as far as playing at a home stadium in my minor league career.”

Walker injured his right hand sliding into second base April 26 at St. Louis He suffered a laceration on his index finger and needed six stitches that eventually sent him to the disabled list, retroactive to April 27. He’s eligible to come off the DL on Sunday.

The plan is for Walker to play tonight and tomorrow at Peoples Natural Gas Field, then he will be re-evaluated after Friday’s game against Richmond. He expects to play all nine innings at second base in both games.

“I’m pretty close to being 100 percent,” Walker said. “It was just a laceration, so I was really just waiting for, number one, the stitches to come out and, number two, the mobility of where the laceration was.

“It will just be the amount of at-bats getting my timing back and all that, and I should be good to go. But I haven’t had any restrictions as far as throwing and swinging and all that.”

Walker first came up to the Curve at the end of the 2006 season and hit .161 in 10 games. He started the 2007 season back in Altoona, along with another prized prospect at the time, Andrew McCutchen.

Walker had a solid season for the Curve in ’07, hitting .288 with 13 homers, 66 RBIs and .824 OPS. He was playing third base then, having converted from catcher, and committed 25 errors.

“It’s a great ballpark to play in,” Walker said of PNG Field. “The fans were fantastic. It’s one of the better facilities as far as Double-A baseball goes.

“I really enjoyed my time as far as living there and having that be my home field. It was a little more special to me because of how close it is to my home in Pittsburgh. But it was one of my more favorite stops along the road to the big leagues.”

Walker and McCutchen were the big names on that 2007 Curve team, but both of them were overshadowed that year by Steve Pearce. The first baseman had a remarkable showing in Altoona, hitting .334 with 14 homers and 72 RBIs in only 81 games during a year that saw him go all the way from high-A ball to the majors.

“When Steve Pearce joined us, that was one of the better offensive performances I’ve ever seen as far as playing with a guy, except for Andrew last year,” Walker said.

He added he still keeps in touch with several players from the 2007 Curve team. The club was in contention for an Eastern League playoff berth until mid-August, when both Walker and McCutchen were promoted to Triple-A on the same day.

“It was just a good group of guys and a very talented group,” Walker said of that Curve team.