BALTIMORE — Yankees Manager Aaron Boone spoke to reporters for 4 minutes 56 seconds late Friday night. He answered questions about Luke Voit, C. C. Sabathia and Zach Britton. He explained that performance would begin to dictate playing time and why he did not pinch-hit for Ronald Torreyes with the score tied late in Friday’s game.
What Boone did not discuss was Neil Walker.
For a player who had once been the voice of a franchise, if not the face of one — he was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ local boy made good, and he could articulate the team’s emotions on good days and bad — he has operated in the shadows this season as a Yankee.
Even on a night like Friday, when Walker delivered three hits, including the go-ahead home run in the 10th inning in an eventual victory, his contribution has largely gone unnoticed.
And yet as the Yankees’ performance has flattened over the last two months and injuries have piled up, with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Gleyber Torres and Aroldis Chapman sidelined, Walker has emerged from a dreadful start to provide a reliable bat and a versatile glove.
Since the All-Star break, Walker was batting .314 with a .914 on-base plus slugging percentage entering Saturday. Then he reached base for the ninth consecutive game when he was hit by a pitch on Saturday in the first game of a doubleheader in which the Yankees trounced the Orioles, 10-3, with home runs by Miguel Andujar, Aaron Hicks, Torres and Brett Gardner.
“What he’s been able to do for us over the last couple months, especially with guys down and the versatility he’s shown — playing first, second, third, sticking him in right field — he’s really been huge for us,” Boone said Saturday.
In the series here, Walker started in right field on Friday night, then moved to third, where he provides more reliable defense than Andujar. He started Saturday’s first game at second base, then was in right field for the second. He has batted fifth in four consecutive games.
Walker, 32, has long been prepared for such versatility.
He was a first-round draft pick as a catcher, but the Pirates moved him to third base after his bat came alive at Class AA Altoona in 2007, when they began to sour on their major league third baseman, Jose Bautista. But then the Pirates chose third baseman Pedro Alvarez with the second overall pick in 2008.
By the time Walker proved himself ready to hit in the big leagues in 2010, the Pirates stuck him at second base, where he became a fixture for six seasons.
“There’s no easy spot on the field to play — let’s be honest,” Walker said. “But I think moving from catcher to third base, the mind-set of doing something different and doing it at such a high level, gave me the confidence I could do it when I was asked to move a second time.”
He added: “I never thought I could be a second baseman in the major leagues — I never played there going back to Little League — and I did it for eight years. I never even played there in Little League. So anything outside of that, from a mentality standpoint, I can grasp the concept of it.”
Thus, when the Yankees, who have lost outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury, Clint Frazier, the since-traded Billy McKinney and Judge to injuries and had Giancarlo Stanton nursing a tender hamstring, Walker willingly raised his hand.
His versatility has necessitated lugging a large haul of equipment on the road: separate gloves for first, second and third base, and an outfielder’s glove. He is also the emergency catcher behind Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka, so he carries a set of catcher’s equipment, too.
In June, when Walker played sporadically, he would do catching drills a couple of times a week. Since then, he has parceled his pregame workouts among several positions, trying to strike a balance between staying sharp and wearing himself out.
Of his newest position, Walker said: “You really have to digest where you are, who’s hitting, how the ball is coming off the bat, and you really don’t need to do that in the infield. It’s taken a little bit of extra focus on every pitch just to make sure I run through the checklist of what could possibly happen.”
Walker started his first career game in the outfield on Aug. 11 at Yankee Stadium. As it happened, the first ball hit to him in right field was a screaming liner by Joey Gallo of the Texas Rangers that swerved and dipped. As Walker gave chase, he dived tentatively and the ball bounced past him for a double.
Walker exhaled when Gallo did not score.
“That was a christening,” he said.
It also symbolized Walker’s serpentine journey with the Yankees. They tried to acquire him last August from the Mets, who instead sent him to Milwaukee. They also had discussions with him last winter before acquiring a cheaper, younger player in Brandon Drury. But with Walker among those finding almost no offers in a chilly free-agent market, he fell into their laps in March for one year with incentives that could earn him $4.5 million — a fourth of what he made last season.
Then an abysmal April, in which he batted .165; the emergence of rookies like Torres and Andujar; and Greg Bird’s return from surgery anchored Walker to the bench.
But a dire need, an awakened bat and all those gloves have provided an opportunity for Walker to quietly refashion himself. A player the Yankees could not afford to play is one whom, for the moment, they cannot do without.