FREDERICK, MD. — Baltimore Orioles prospect Christian Walker stepped to the plate in the fifth inning of a recent game against pitcher Blake Schwartz, a Carolina League All-Star for the Potomac Nationals.
The right-handed hurler threw a pitch that Walker, 22, a former first baseman at South Carolina, crushed for a home run that went over a billboard advertising Yellow Cab in left field to tie the game at 3-3 in an eventual 10-9 loss.
Walker has been promoted once this season, due mostly to his production at the plate. After starting the season with low Single-A Delmarva of the South Atlantic League, he was promoted to high Single-A Frederick Keys in May.
It is a big confidence booster, Walker said. That is why we do it; we work hard every day and get prepared for any situation that comes along. It is a big deal to get moved up, even from low-A to high-A. It helps your confidence and helps you to stay motivated.
The right-hander hit .353 with three homers and 20 RBIs in 116 at bats with the Shorebirds before he was promoted to Frederick.
He grew up in suburban Philadelphia, and his family has been able to make the three-hour drive to Frederick to see him play. Family and friends also were on hand when the Keys played in Wilmington, Del., in early June.
In his first 38 games with the Keys, Walker is hitting .291 with nine doubles, four homers and 24 RBIs.
Walker, who turned 22 in March, entered this season as the No. 17 prospect in Baltimores system, according to MLB.com. His Frederick manager is Ryan Minor, a former third baseman for Baltimore.
Brian Graham, the director of Player Development for the Orioles, said that Walker compares favorably with former USC standout Steve Pearce, a Major League veteran who is playing with Baltimore this season.
The body types are similar. The swings are similar, Graham said. Walker understands the strike zone. Walker is a guy that gets a good pitch to hit.
Walker said he got to meet Pearce for the first time in spring training earlier this year. Walker headed to Sarasota, Fla., in mid-February to take part in early workouts before minor league players were slated to report to the Baltimore camp.
Graham said Walker is healthier than he was last season with Aberdeen.
He is a much better offensive player than he was last year. He had some back issues last year that limited his game, said Graham, a former minor league manager, big league coach and one-time interim general manager of the Pirates. Even when he was playing, it limited his performance (with) the back soreness.
Walker said he had a stress fracture in his lower back at the end of last season. He was told by doctors to rest for four months after the season. I feel great this season, he said.
Walker has been used at first base this year and that is where the Orioles plan to keep him. He is getting better at first base. His skills are improving, Graham said. We have not entertained the thought of moving him at this point.
Walker played third base as a freshman at USC before moving to first.
I was willing to do anything to stay in the lineup, he said. I landed at first base and have been there ever since.
Walker points out former USC teammates Jackie Bradley Jr. (Boston) and Michael Roth (Angels) already have made their big league debuts this season.
Walker was drafted in the fourth round by the Orioles in 2012, and he began his pro career at Aberdeen in the New-York Penn League, where he hit .284 in 81 at bats with nine doubles, two homers and nine RBIs.
In the offseason, I try to set some goals for myself. Obviously, I want to hit over .300. I want to be realistic so they are achievable, said Walker, who lives with three teammates in an apartment near Harry Grove Stadium.
Frederick may not be the last stop for Walker this year. The next rung on the Baltimore ladder is the Double-A Bowie (Md.) Baysox of the Eastern League.
Graham would not speculate on a possible move but did say: He is moving in the right direction.
Is it possible to be in Bowie by the end of the year? I would like to think so, said Walker. Whatever keeps me motivated. Obviously I want to get moved up but I can only control what I can control; whenever they feel I am ready.