Former Reno Aces infielder finds home with Arizona Diamondbacks

SAN FRANCISCO — An eerie silence permeated the visiting clubhouse before a late-August game against San Francisco at Oracle Park. Some players sitting in front of their lockers listened to music through their earbuds.

Former Reno Aces first baseman Christian Walker, though, who is playing his first full season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, was methodically filling in the squares of a New York Times crossword puzzle hours before the team took the field.

That methodical approach to his play in Major League Baseball has not been a puzzle for the 28-year-old Walker, the 2017 Pacific Coast League Player of the Year when he batted .309 with 32 home runs and 114 RBIs to lead the Aces in the postseason playoffs. Walker rapidly became a fan favorite in Reno’s long line of productive first basemen following the likes of Peter O’Brien and Kyle Jensen.

With the Diamondbacks trading first baseman Paul “Goldy” Goldschmidt to St. Louis after the 2018 season, Walker saw an opportunity for more playing time, even starting on a daily basis. After a hot April followed by some streakiness in his hitting during the spring, Walker found his timing again and settled in as the D-backs regular first baseman.

“It’s definitely going pretty well,” said Walker, holding the crossword puzzle in his hand. “I am definitely learning about myself along the way. It’s still the same game. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m honored and excited to get this opportunity. It’s motivating for sure.”

Walker knew he had big shoes to fill after Goldschmidt departed to St. Louis. First, former Aces infielder Jake Lamb played a few games at first base before he was injured.

Walker, who played on three College World Series teams at the University of South Carolina from 2010-2012, knew he had to make the most of the opportunity.

“Christian jumped into it and is on his way to getting 30 home runs. He still has some work to get there,” said Arizona manager Torey Lovullo during an interview with the media. “He quietly goes at his business and gets those at bats.”

Through the last week of August, Walker has lifted his batting average to .266 in 440 plate appearances. He has 117 hits, which includes 23 homers, and has driven in 59 runs.

Since he arrived in Reno two seasons ago, Walker steadily continues to refine his game. Although his game dipped in 2018 at Reno when he batted .299 with 97 hits, 18 home runs and 71 RBIs, he was called up to the D-backs for part of the season. Although he struggled at the plate by recording eight hits in 49 at bats, he showed his potential to become an everyday player.

Lovullo wasn’t concerned. He referred back to the scouts who identified Walker as someone who could come into the system, grow and learn.

“There was a time when we didn’t have a lot of upper-level position players,” Lovullo said. “In 2017, he goes crazy in Reno and since that time, he continually evolves with meaningful at bats. Without him, we couldn’t be here where we are this year.”

For those Reno fans who root for the Aces but retain their Giants’ allegiance, Walker didn’t disappoint. In the first game against San Francisco, Walker had a single in five appearances, but in the second game of their short series, he went 2-for-3 with a walk, stolen base and RBI and scored a run.

Walker fell down a few times before finding himself in the D-backs’ organization. Drafted by Baltimore in 2012, he rose to Triple-A ball in two years and Orioles called him up in mid-September.

The Orioles, though, surprised Walker when they designated him for assignment on Feb. 21, 2017, and a merry-go-round to determine Walker’s future in baseball ensued. The Atlanta Braves claimed Walker off waivers four days later, but on March 6, the Cincinnati Reds claimed him. Three weeks later, the Reds let Walker go, but Arizona picked him up and assigned him to the Aces.

Lovullo feels Walker didn’t take advantage of his playing time at Baltimore, but after two seasons at Reno and now the regular first baseman at Arizona, Walker has proven his skeptics wrong. Now, the Pennsylvania native is a completely different player.

“He’s an easy guy to root for because of the path he has taken,” Lovullo pointed out. “All his teammates appreciate him, knowing where he has come from and what he has done.”

Lovullo has seen Walker’s evolution from fighting for a spot on the roster to improving his game.

“I congratulated him on making the team,” Lovullo remembers. “It was a good moment for me.”

Lovullo can see Walker’s yearning to learn and improve and unlike his short experience with the Orioles, he feels his first baseman will not let the opportunity pass him again. Being his own player and not standing in Goldschmidt’s shadow has also helped.

“He’s 100% engaged with who he is, and he’s accountable,” Lovullo said. “I’ve had some very good conversations with him. I also got on him about certain parts of the game that weren’t satisfying to me, but he’s addressed those piece by piece.”

The boys of summer have a month left before the end of the season, but the Diamondbacks have a good shot to qualify as a wild-card team with five others.

Walker said the games down the stretch will be exciting like filling in a crossword puzzle.

“Unless we’re told otherwise we’re going to go out and win games,” he said.


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