Walker puts on power play
Christian Walker is sitting on the artificial playing surface of Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he's getting anxious.
It's been hours since he stepped to the plate for the first round of the International Power Showcase, a home run derby held in January that pitted some of the nation's best sluggers against each other. His preliminary group finished hitting at 11 a.m. It's now past 8 in the evening, and Walker still isn't a lock to reach the finals.
Fortunately for the Kennedy-Kenrick (Norristown, Pa.) senior, while most of the 70-plus competitors are adept at mashing the ball with metal, a lot of batters are having a hard time producing home run distance with a wooden bat. It's a lost art for high schoolers.
Given 15 outs with a metal bat and 10 more with wood, Walker cracked 10 total home runs in the first round. And his three using the major league lumber were the most of any slugger. Still, Walker is on the verge of elimination as the hitters begin to dwindle, and he cringes every time a ball leaves the yard.
"Sitting there watching was the hardest part," he says. "You're watching these great hitters, just knowing any one of them could knock you out of the tournament."
Around 9 p.m., the last competitor's final swing falls short. The top five advance to the finals. Walker is fifth.
Walker's performance on the national stage came as no surprise to Kennedy-Kenrick coach Tom Sergio. Having arrived at the school last year as the team's third coach in three seasons, Sergio immediately began hearing that his new team had one especially talented player.
"The talk of the town was that he was the stud of the team," Sergio says. "I kind of approached it gently. I didn't want to step on anyone's toes. He had already been taught how to hit."
There was no doubting that. Sergio watched as Walker went out and torched opposing pitchers as a junior, hitting .634 and adding six home runs and 35 RBIs. Equally impressive was Walker's ability to lay off the junk most pitchers threw him. He drew 19 walks in 60 plate appearances last season, helping him post a .750 on-base percentage.
The 6-foot, 215-pound third baseman is now ranked the nation's No. 106 prep prospect by Perfect Game, No. 1 among Pennsylvanians. But as far as his coach is concerned, there's only one number that matters.
"He goes on the (lineup) card first, in the No. 3 spot," Sergio says. "Then I build the rest of the lineup around him."
Walker has been well known among area scouts for years and has signed to play collegiately at South Carolina. But he isn't ruling out going pro after high school if he ends up in the right situation following June's MLB Draft. He'd worked out for the Phillies, Red Sox and Royals as of press time, and more individual workouts are sure to be scheduled as the draft grows closer. Walker's bat is undoubtedly what drew scouts to him initially, but the talent evaluators soon discovered his prodigious power was only part of the package.
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For starters, he plays above-average defense at the hot corner, a fact that often gets overlooked. "You hear 'Christian Walker' and you think, 'Oh yeah, he's a great hitter,'" Walker says. "I've spent a lot of time working on my defense, though."
Versatility is another attribute pro scouts love about Walker. He has played catcher in the past and would be willing to move back behind the plate at the next level. "Every time I mention to a scout that I used to play catcher, their eyes light up," Walker says. "Teams always need catchers. Especially power-hitting catchers."
Walker's willingness to move around the diamond is a reflection of his team-first mentality. He went so far as to volunteer to pitch for Kennedy-Kenrick last spring after the team's already-thin rotation was decimated by injuries.
"Here's a kid who, although he's driven and focused on his career, he's still a high school kid," Sergio says. "He's the best player on his team. He wants to do everything. I have no doubt he would have done a great job (as a pitcher), but I'm not going to be the guy who blows out the arm of his star player."
As a former Division I baseball player at North Carolina State and a five-year minor leaguer, Sergio has the ability to give Walker much more than just on-field pointers. The coach has talked with Walker about handling the spotlight and dealing with the pressure that comes with playing baseball beyond high school. "I'm trying to teach him what he may expect in the future," Sergio says.
As Walker prepared for the finals of the International Power Showcase, the future was now.
After 10 hours spent waiting around, the finals are about to begin. Totals from the first round are wiped clean, but the player with the most home runs gets the advantage of deciding where in the order he'd like to hit in the final round. Then the player with the second-most homers gets to pick his spot, and so on down the line. Walker is left to hit first.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," he says. "The first couple of swings were rough, but after that you get into a rhythm."
It's metal bats only in the final round, and Walker's total of nine long balls is good enough to edge the competition and take home first place.
"That whole experience was amazing," Walker says. "Being from the north, from the cold-weather states, you tend to get overlooked. But I knew if I made the finals, I could win it."
Walker was right about that, and he put on a show that was worth the wait.
Christopher Parish covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.
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