Baltimore's southpaw specialist is finally pitching healthy again, free of the irritation in his ulnar nerve that plagued him for much of last year and kept him from pitching to the best of his abilities.
The 37-year-old knows that there's a current of doubt centered on whether he can rebound, and he also knows that he'll need to be far better if he wants to continue pitching beyond the 2009 season.
"Last year was just a bad year for everybody here," he said recently. "But there's no excuses. I didn't get the job done. This year, I've got a little extra something in me, that inner drive to prove to the media and prove to the fans that you can have a bad year. ... I never try to second-guess myself, but it's a lot different when you can throw. Last year, sometimes it felt like I was throwing uphill. I didn't have any action on the ball."
Now, Walker, who's entering the final year of a lucrative free-agent contract signed before the 2007 season, is free to reprise his duties as one of the most active relievers in baseball.
The veteran set a franchise record for appearances (81) in his first season with Baltimore, and he led the team last year despite spending a month on the disabled list. Walker, the senior member of the Orioles' pitching staff, serves as a mentor to many of the younger relievers and is content to pitch in a variety of roles.
Already this season, Walker has worked a complete inning and come in to face just one tough batter. His primary job is to retire left-handed hitters, though, and as the only southpaw in the bullpen outside of closer George Sherrill, it's a demanding task that can wind up as a nightly matchup assignment.
"He's got a lot to prove. He's very competitive," said manager Dave Trembley. "He doesn't make excuses, he takes the ball all the time. The guy has worked very hard. You saw him in Spring Training. The guy gives you a great effort. The ball is just coming out better with more finish, more life. He's pitching down a lot better."
|"We've got to get a starter to go nine. If we're going to carry this on and the bullpen's going to stay healthy, we can't be sucking up four or five innings every night. That's just not going to work. I know my role. I don't ever ask for a day off, but if I throw three or four days straight, I'm going to have to have one."|
|-- Jamie Walker|
Trembley went on to credit former Oriole Mike Cuellar for helping Walker with his release point during the exhibition season, a tutorial that has helped him deliver the ball more consistently. Trembley said that if Walker can maintain his release point, there's no reason he can't continue to be successful even at his advanced age.
"He can be a very valuable guy to us if he can be a matchup guy plus be a guy that can go longer than one inning," Trembley said. "It doesn't take him long to get loose and he can pitch on consecutive days."
That resiliency was on display against the Rangers, when Walker came in to retire Chris Davis in a one-run game on Monday and then turned around and pitched a full inning on Tuesday. Walker, who bristles at being called a southpaw specialist, took special glee at retiring Davis on consecutive nights.
"He was 3-for-3 going into that at-bat and had already hit one out of the stadium," Walker said of Monday's confrontation. "I already had a game plan. I gave him a fastball to look at, but I wanted to see what he could do with the breaking pitch. I just kept throwing it and he kept swinging at it. When I get a strikeout, it's kind of a fluke. I really want them to hit the ball. Obviously, I don't want them to hit it out of the park, but I'll take my chances."
Walker, a former 10th-round draftee, has made at least 50 appearances in every season since 2002. And if he's going to be a linchpin in Baltimore's bullpen for another season, he has one simple request.
"We've got to get a starter to go nine," he said. "If we're going to carry this on and the bullpen's going to stay healthy, we can't be sucking up four or five innings every night. That's just not going to work. I know my role. I don't ever ask for a day off, but if I throw three or four days straight, I'm going to have to have one.
"I've talked to Trembley and [pitching coach Rick] Kranitz. I think they're doing what they can do with what we have to work with. But really, we're only going to be as good as our starting pitchers."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.