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Walker returns to playoffs in style10/05/2004 8:34 PM ET
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- Larry Walker had waited nine years to get back into the playoffs, and it took a little help from his family to help get this famously even-keeled veteran to truly appreciate what was about to happen.
"You know, talking to the family last night, they were asking me, 'Are you going to get fired up? You guys have been on cruise control for the last few weeks,'" Walker said Tuesday. "Once we take the field and see everybody dressed in red, the atmosphere is the playoffs. There's only three other [games] up on the scoreboard. That's enough to get your heart going and it did. My heart was pounding the whole game. It was a lot of fun. You're into the game and into the situations going on."
Walker was into it, all right. He hit two of the Cardinals' record-tying five home runs, including one that started the key five-run third inning as St. Louis opened its National League Division Series with an 8-3 victory over Los Angeles.
It was his first playoff experience since playing in the 1995 NLDS against Atlanta in his first season with the Rockies. He never made it back with Colorado after that, but it was virtually assured that he would return once he was traded to St. Louis this August. No one could have imagined just how sweet a return it would be.
Walker became the third Cardinal to hit two homers in a postseason game, and the first in Division Series play. Willie McGee hit two out in Game 3 of the 1982 World Series at Milwaukee, and Ron Gant homered twice against Atlanta in Game 3 of the 1996 NL Championship Series. Walker now has three career postseason homers, including the one he hit for Colorado against Atlanta in Game 2 of that 1995 series.
That was a long time ago. Was it worth the wait?
"Yeah. It was nine years. It was," he replied. "It was a lot of fun out there today to see the packed house, everybody in red, you know? It was a good feeling."
It had to be a good feeling to take Dodgers starter Odalis Perez deep in leading off the third inning. Walker had been 1-for-15 against him during his career, and in the first inning, Walker had what he called a "horrible" strikeout in flailing at a third strike toward the dirt. The breakthrough couldn't have come at a better time for the Cardinals and 52,127 screaming Busch Stadium fans.
After the game, Walker was as good with a quote as he was with his bat. In the postgame interview room during this series, questions from media are relayed by longtime NL publicist Jim Ferguson to players or managers at the dais. A reporter mentioned that Walker had been 1-for-16 against Perez (including the Game 1 strikeout, which does not officially count in that regular-season history), and asked, "Was there any change you made today?" Walker listened to the reporter ask it, and then he had to hear it again as Ferguson customarily relayed it through a microphone.
"You don't have to ask it twice -- does that make it 2-for-32?" Walker deadpanned to a giggling throng of media. "I knew how bad I batted against Odalis. I knew that going in, just horrible at-bats. Really, the first at-bat was horrible. I just tried to cut down my swing the second at-bat. I tried to swing easy. I wasn't trying to hit a home run, just trying to hit a line drive somewhere, and up it went. I was very fortunate."
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa noted that prior futility against Perez as well. "That was a big hit because Perez has really shut him down over his career," La Russa said. "I mean, that ignited us. Our guys know that's a tough matchup for him, and we like to encourage line drives all over the ballpark, you know, and I kidded him a little bit when it was over. He hit two high liners swinging for the fence."
Walker's first homer began a streak of five consecutive Cardinals batters who would reach base and score. Perez departed the game after the fifth of those, and by then it was a 6-0 game and a dream playoff return for Walker. Just to make it a little more dreamy, he led off the seventh with another homer to right.
This had to be exactly what the Cardinals were hoping for when they picked up Walker right after the trading deadline. He said it took virtually no time to feel like a part of this club after joining his new teammates.
"When I first got here from the trade, it was two messages I got, one from Scott Rolen and one from Jim Edmonds," Walker said. "Just to hear those two guys talk, I knew Jimmy a little bit from times we've been together. Everybody's laid back. They're a great team. Everybody's funny and easy to get along with. I kind of slid right in there with my goofiness, and it worked out."
"It just gives us another great bat in the lineup," said Edmonds, who homered himself to complete the third-inning explosion that Walker had begun. "He's a veteran, plays good defense -- though he didn't show it today [laughs]. He's just another person that can hit, run, throw, all around."
Edmonds was referring to a double that Cesar Izturis hit in the fifth inning -- a ball that hit Walker's historically golden glove as he tried to make an over-the-shoulder catch. Izturis then scored on Jayson Werth's double, breaking up the shutout. It almost seemed out of place to even bring it up after such a dazzling individual game ... but someone did.
"Yeah. Thanks," Walker said dryly. "I gave one [run] back, but I got two myself. You know, there's no excuses. The ball was in the sun. It came into the shade. I had trouble seeing it, but the [darn] thing hit my glove. It hits my glove, I should have caught it. It should have been scored an error, not a double. I disagree with it."
That's the same, brutally honest Larry Walker who had candidly told MLB.com just a day earlier that his club had been on "cruise control" down the stretch after clinching the NL Central so early. The only cruising on this day was the way the Cardinals were cruising around the bases, and someone asked Walker later if this had been the "first really stressful game" since he joined the club.
He reminded everyone of what happened in his first Cardinals at-bat, when fans remarkably gave him a standing ovation after he struck out.
"Well, it might be my second stressful game," he corrected. "The first one I played, it was quite a mess that day. It's just ... I don't know. I'm one who doesn't believe in pressure. I'm going to go out there to win or lose. I don't go beyond that. I don't look at pressure here, stress there. I think basically that's the way we took it.
"Oddly enough, in the clubhouse today and before the game, everything was basically the same as before a regular-season game except maybe a minute before we took the field. We were a little bit more amped up and guys were chatting a bit more."
Now Walker is 2-for-4 with two home runs in a long-awaited playoff series, and he and his new teammates have a 1-0 series lead heading into Thursday night's second game against Dodgers starter Jeff Weaver. This is what was missing in all those Octobers. This is what Walker's family had to remind him about.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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