PITTSBURGH -- When Neil Walker came off the disabled list earlier this month, manager Clint Hurdle was happy to have his second baseman back because he provides stability in the middle of the order.
Lately, Walker has been giving the Pirates more than stability. He's providing power and consistency, and he says the game seems to slow down when he gets in a groove offensively.
"When you start to hit the ball well, it seems to be a little bigger when it comes in," Walker said. "You try to ride that out as long as you can."
Walker has 11 hits, three home runs and five RBIs in 25 at-bats in his last six games entering Thursday. Before that, he stumbled through a 1-for-16 slump.
Walker had the Pirates' only two hits Wednesday night, including his second homer in as many games, before they broke out for four runs in the seventh in a 5-3 win over the Tigers.
"Yeah, he's a pain in the [butt]," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "He's gotten big hits against us in the past. He's a good hitter, and he's been a good hitter for a few years."
Game to game and streak to streak, good or bad, Walker's routine and approach don't change. But there are a lot of different things that go into lengthy stretches of success at the plate, he said.
"I think, at this level, it's not hard to trust your swing and your mechanics. But there's a lot of factors that go into it," Walker said. "When you're feeling good, and you're not missing that pitch you're supposed to hit, that's a big thing."
Hurdle looking for other go-to bullpen options
PITTSBURGH -- "On pace" is a term thrown around in sports that often doesn't hold much weight in the long run.
Jason Grilli is on pace for 66 saves this season. Mark Melancon is on pace for 85 appearances. A.J. Burnett is on pace for six wins. Few things actually materialize into these projections, however.
But Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is exploring different options outside of the Melancon-Grilli eighth- and ninth-inning combination in case the pair has been overworked at any point this season.
Hurdle wants to give Vin Mazzaro and Justin Wilson a chance for some eighth-inning work, as well as Tony Watson, who pitched a scoreless eighth Wednesday.
"We need to give them that opportunity, No. 1 to get them in there for the experience value," Hurdle said. "No. 2 to see if the stuff plays the same, because that's always a challenge for the individual pitcher."
But Watson said a reliever's approach doesn't change if he pitches the eighth in a tie game or the sixth inning of a blowout. So it's just a matter of being ready at any point in the game when his number is called.
"You've just got to take the ball and attack the hitter," Watson said. "You've still got to have the same mentality, attack the strike zone and get those hitters back in the dugout."
Wilson has allowed just five runs in 31 innings this season. Mazzaro, a starter at the beginning of his career, has allowed five runs in 20 innings of relief work.
These two have been strong, along with the rest of the bullpen, which leads baseball in wins, ERA, saves and opponents batting average, and ranks second in strikeouts. If the only concern for a manager were performance, then Hurdle likely wouldn't change much, if anything, about his relievers and their roles.
But wear and tear on arms is always a concern, and injuries are inevitable. That's where having guys who have experience in different parts of the game will help.
"For the most part, we've all picked each other up," Grilli said. "It's just an attitude of guys knowing that we're good. We're going to come out and be aggressive and not be a doormat for anyone."
Dental complications affect Alvarez, Tabata
PITTSBURGH -- Even professional athletes aren't immune to the horrors of a dentist's office.
Pedro Alvarez was not in the Pirates' starting lineup Thursday after having two wisdom teeth removed that morning -- a day after his two-run double sparked the Bucs' four-run seventh inning in their 5-3 win over the Tigers. Manager Clint Hurdle said he sent Alvarez home and told him to come back if he felt better.
Alvarez posted a photo on his Instagram account of himself with puffed-up cheeks and an icepack wrapped around his face.
Jose Tabata, who is on the 15-day disabled list with a strained oblique, also had some dental complications this week.
A root canal procedure delayed the start of his physical activity and rehab, although Hurdle said Tabata began working out some Wednesday night and will ramp it up throughout the weekend.
• James McDonald was roughed up in his first rehab start with Double-A Altoona on Monday, giving up three runs and four walks in two-thirds of an inning. Hurdle said McDonald, who has been dealing with right shoulder stiffness since early May, didn't have any physical setbacks during the start and didn't use that as an excuse for his poor performance.
He'll make another rehab start on June 1, throwing five innings and 80 pitches.
"He did not spend a lot of time in deep discussion about his health. He said, 'I need to throw more strikes. I need to have that intent, that conviction that determination to finish pitches off,' " Hurdle said. "We talked about focus on the mound."
• The Pirates have played four, four-game series this season. In each of them, they have dropped the first game and won the next three.
While this two-game home-and-home series against the Tigers isn't considered a four-game set, a Pittsburgh win Thursday would mark the fifth time they've accomplished that strange feat this season.
• The Pirates are 23-6 when scoring at least four runs this season.
First number, last word
1 -- The Pirates have lost one game when leading after eight innings since the start of the 2012 season. They've won 101.
"I remember some of the early catcalls from the fans here when he was pitching, and he would give it up. And two years later, 'Where's my Locke shirt? How come you guys aren't selling any Locke shirts?' It's a crazy dynamic." -- Hurdle, on Jeff Locke's progression and development over the last two seasons.
Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.