After the season Walker played winter ball in Venezuela and further honed his swing. Then came the news on Feb. 6 that Knoblauch had been traded to the Yankees, clearing the way for Walker to return to his natural position at second base. Little more than a year after his demotion, Walker was fifth in the American League in hitting, with a .333 average through Sunday.
Says Kelly, "He's smart enough to know it wasn't anybody else's fault and that he needed to fix his swing to establish himself up here. We still hound him about his defense, but he's hitting well."
While Walker now says that he understands Kelly's motives, he still bristles when he sits against tough lefties. Even though he had missed a quarter of the Twins' games, through Sunday he still led the team in batting average and doubles, and was second in stolen bases and runs scored. He was also the ninth-toughest hitter to strike out in the league. Equally important to Kelly, he had committed just three errors and was second in fielding percentage (.987) among American League second basemen.
"After going through what I'd call a career tragedy last season, this season is proof that all my hard work paid off," said Walker, moments after his pinch-hit RBI double in the ninth inning beat Chicago 8-7 last Friday night. "I finally feel comfortable in the major leagues."
How Does Cox Spell Relief?
While the Braves appear to be cruising toward yet another National League East division title with the best record in the league, the team's early success might be diverting attention from what could be a familiar and fatal weakness in the bullpen. Since his return from the disabled list (pulled muscle in his side) on May 25, closer Mark Wohlers has struggled with his control, walking nine while allowing seven runs in only 6⅔ innings at week's end. Wohlers no longer appears to have confidence in his fastball, and on June 7 manager Bobby Cox removed him from the closer's role against his wishes.
"I think anybody can relate to this," Wohlers told reporters that day. "You walk into your office, you see someone sitting at your desk, taking your job, do you run to the editor and say, 'Oh, boy! Now we're going to have a stronger newspaper'? I still consider myself a closer, and I want the ball in the ninth inning."
Five days after making that statement, Wohlers walked the only batter he faced in the ninth inning of a game against the Expos, in the process throwing one pitch over the catcher's head to the backstop. Cox replaced Wohlers with Mike Cather, who then hit a batter, walked another and then gave up a game-winning grand slam to Expos rookie Darond Stovall as a 5-2 Braves lead became an eventual 7-5 loss. Through Sunday the bullpen had blown 7 of 24 save opportunities this year, and its ERA was 4.41. "We might be putting pressure on ourselves to get out of this funk we're in," says Kerry Ligtenberg, who had seven saves in Wohlers's absence but has a 7.20 ERA in his last 10 games.
Uncertainty has been an unwanted hallmark of the Braves bullpen for years, with closers like Jeff Reardon, Alejandro Pena and Greg McMichael having been tried and found wanting. Now Cox has turned to 43-year-old starter Dennis Martinez as his latest closer, even though before this season Martinez had just six saves in his 22-year major league career. While Martinez may be the club's best relief option now, everybody in the Atlanta organization knows that if the Braves are to win the World Series this year, they will most likely need a rehabilitated and confident Wohlers to throw the final strike.