Walker, healthy and happy, ex­cited to get started

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - SPORTS - By Bill White­head

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. >> Mets sec­ond base­man Neil Walker dealt with back is­sues for al­most five years and said not a day­went­by­when­hedidn’tfeel some kind of pain.

“I’d prob­a­bly wake up every sin­gle morn­ing and as soon as I’d throw my feet over the side of bed, I could tell whether it was go­ing to be a good or bad day,” Walker said on Wed­nes­day at the Mets’ train­ing camp.

Walker now says he has no rea­son­totip­toearound­for­fear of hurt­ing his back af­ter hav­ing surgery last Septem­ber to re­pair a her­ni­ated disk.

“About three days af­ter surgery when all the drugs were out of my sys­tem per se, that (morn­ing) feel­ing was com­pletely gone. Then it was just a mat­ter of get­ting back on my feet and get­ting the strength back. It took about three months, but those feel­ings are all gone,” he said.

“I couldn’t be more ex­cited about that,” he said.

The Mets are ex­cited about the prospect of a fit Walker, who hit 23 home runs and bat­te­dateam-lead­ing.282asare­place­ment for Daniel Mur­phy at sec­ond base.

Walker ac­cepted the Mets’ one-year, $17.2 mil­lion qual­i­fy­ing of­fer last Novem­ber, mak­ing him the third-high­est paid player in the or­ga­ni­za­tion be­hind Yoe­nis Ce­s­pedes and David Wright.

Af­ter a late-morn­ing work­out that saw Walker take grounders at sec­ond base — he will also play third and likely work out at first, and brought gloves for all three po­si­tions with him to camp — and swing with­out a hitch in bat­ting prac­tice, man­ager Terry Collins said he an­tic­i­pates a big year from the 31-year-old.

“The way he played last year was bril­liant, es­pe­cially un­der the con­di­tions he had to deal with,” Collins said. “One of the things that saved us is he hit sow­ell­right-hand­ed­with­that bad back. Now he feels great. I think he’s go­ing to have a huge year.”

Walker gam­bled on him­self on­theone-yeardeal,opt­ingto play with a likely con­tender in the Mets rather than choos­ing to go west and play for some clubs that were re­build­ing.

He stopped short of nam­ing the teams that would have of­fered him length­ier con­tracts, but he said he had al­ways played in the East and had en­dured some rough sea­son­swhile­with­thePitts­burgh Pi­rates.

“I wasn’t re­ally ex­cited about a lot of the (po­ten­tial) land­ing spots,” Walker said. “I’m an East Coast guy and I’ve played on the East Coast my en­tire ca­reer. This made a lot of sense. There was a po­ten­tial to go sev­eral places that were kind of in a re­build­ing mode. Hav­ing been in Pitts­burgh for a few 100-loss sea­sons,Iwant­ednopartofthat.”

“It could’ve ended up dif­fer­ently, but there was no telling. This was the right move,” he said.

Collins said Walker also has a strong pres­ence in the club­house and stepped right in to a lead­er­ship role last sea­son when Wright went down.

“I think lead­ers are lead­ers, and I think Neil Walker’s a leader.Even­though,hey,it­was a new team, he’s one of those guyswho’sa­good­player,plays hard and the guys all like him. You saw it last spring. There­fore,hede­mand­sa­lot­fromhis team­mates,” Collins said.

“When we lost the voice of David in there, we needed some­one to step up. Neil was the guy,” he said. CLEAR­WA­TER, FLA. >> As the Phillies move into the third year of re­build­ing, man­ager Pete Mack­anin hopes to see Philadelphia fin­ish with a win­ning record for the first time since a 102-vic­tory sea­son in 2011.

Af­ter back-to-back 89-loss sea­sons, the Phillies fin­ished with a ma­jor league-high 99 de­feats in 2015, then cut back to 91 losses last year. Af­ter the Phillies added veter­ans Clay Buch­holz, Howie Ken­drick and Michael Saun­ders, Mack­anin ex­pects Philadelphia to be com­pet­i­tive on a nightly ba­sis.

“I would like to see us play­ing .500 go­ing deeper into the sea­son and, at that point, you never know what can hap­pen,” Mack­anin said. “As a man­ager and as the cap­tain of the ship, I’d like to go a lit­tle far­ther. I want to stay pos­i­tive with my team be­cause I think there’s a lot of room for im­prove­ment and just how well these guys im­prove and the guys that we have at the mi­nor leagues, how well they im­prove to push the other guys, there’s no telling what can hap­pen. But cer­tainly, I think .500 is a rel­a­tively mod­est call for the leader of the team.”

As play­ers shuf­fled through the hall­ways at newly re­named Spec­trum Field, they were greeted by new sig­nage at the 13-year-old ball­park.

The wall in the main lobby of the club­house floor is dec­o­rated with a large photo of Shane Vic­torino jump­ing onto the steep pile of play­ers as the 2008 Phillies cel­e­brated the World Series ti­tle. The hall­way lead­ing into the club­house hon­ors cham­pi­onship teams, too, with photos of Ryan Howard and Tug McGraw rais­ing their arms in cel­e­bra­tion and both the 1980 and 2008 teams. Photos of pen­nant and divi­sion win­ners are on the walls, and the four man fields on the com­plex, named for Mike Sch­midt, Steve Carl­ton, Richie Ash­burn and Robin Roberts, have large photos of each re­spec­tive player on a wall be­hind each back­stop.

Philadelphia is with­out Howard and Car­los Ruiz, the last re­main­ing mem­bers of the 2008 cham­pi­onship team.

“I think we’re in good shape,” Phillies pres­i­dent Andy MacPhail said of a team that has a bevy of ma­jor league­cal­iber prospects ex­pected to start the year in Triple-A, a front of­fice that’s kept the pay­roll flex­i­ble and an own­er­ship group ea­ger to spend. “Our ex­pec­ta­tion is that we’ll be bet­ter than we were a year ago and our ex­pec­ta­tion is that we’ll con­tinue to in­tro­duce new tal­ent onto our ma­jor league team not un­like we did last year.”

And fin­ish­ing with a win­ning record?

“I’m fo­cused not so much on a num­ber,” MacPhail said. “I’d like to see im­prove­ment. That can demon­strate it­self in a lot of ways. So I’m look­ing for im­prove­ment, mea­sur­able, mean­ing­ful im­prove­ment. That could just be in the num­ber of play­ers that look like they can be pieces for the fu­ture. I think that’s my goal for 2017.

“I ac­tu­ally was pretty happy with Pete and the things I was try­ing to get across from my level to both Pete and (gen­eral man­ager) Matt (Klen­tak). If you show en­ergy, ef­fort and en­thu­si­asm, if you do those things and show them to our fans, they’re go­ing to be a great deal more for­giv­ing of what hap­pens on the field. I think we got that by and large last year. I’m hop­ing we can main­tain it and get it again this year.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mets sec­ond base­man Neil Walker hits dur­ing a spring train­ing base­ball work­out Wed­nes­day in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pete Mack­anin im­proved the Phillies’ win to­tal from 63to 71in his sec­ond sea­son, and is hop­ing to fin­ish above .500 this year.

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