Prospects savor Futures experience
Walker, Sharpless get an up close look at PNC Park
PITTSBURGH -- Each summer, only 50 of the best prospects in baseball are selected to participate in the XM Satellite Radio All-Star Futures Game, so merely being invited to the game is an honor.
For those who are selected to participate in the annual prospect showcase during a year that their parent club is the host of the event, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get an early look at the ballpark and city that they hope to call home for many years to come.
So, what's it like to play for your hometown team at your hometown ballpark in the Futures Game? Catcher Neil Walker and right-hander Josh Sharpless, two Pirates prospects and Western Pennsylvania natives, found that out Sunday at PNC Park.
"This is awesome, just to get to play in front of your hometown fans, especially here at PNC Park," said Sharpless. "This is a phenomenol experience. I'm thrilled to be here.
"When I was shagging balls in the outfield, I was looking out into the stands thinking, 'I sat over here and over there during games.'"
"It's kind of overwhelming," said Walker, who had last played at PNC Park during his high school playoffs. "This is definitely the place I want to be as quickly as possible."
Sharpless, a Beaver, Pa., native who was taken in the 24th round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, was added to the U.S. roster when Tom Gorzelanny was promoted to the Pirates. Sharpless had a noticeable case of the pregame jitters on Sunday.
"I woke up and I was fine," said Sharpless. "But as soon as I walked on the field, the nerves got going."
Sharpless, who had approximately 25 friends and family in attendance on Sunday, settled down by game time. He came on with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth inning and calmly retired each of the four batters he faced.
"The first pitch I threw out there allowed me to be calm and relaxed. I played it like a normal game," said Sharpless. "I was just trying to get an out. You've got to throw strikes in that situation."
It was a typically dominating performance for the 25-year-old right-hander. He is 1-1 with a 2.01 ERA and one save in 16 appearances with Triple-A Indianapolis since being promoted from Double-A Altoona, where Sharpless was 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in 14 appearances.
"It's been great," Sharpless said of his season. "I got called up to Triple-A and that's probably the best thing that could have happened to me. There are a lot of older guys there, especially in the bullpen. I've never been around older guys. Just seeing how they work every single day definitely motivates me."
Sharpless, 25, is almost a sure bet to join the Pirates as a September call-up, if not earlier.
"I'm starting to get that itch," he said.
Walker, 19, is likely still a couple of years away from playing regularly at PNC Park.
The former No. 11 overall pick in the 2004 draft has had his development slowed somewhat by a left wrist surgery that forced him to begin the season watching from the bench. Since returning to the lineup with Class A Lynchburg, Walker has batted .250 with one home run and 15 RBIs in 43 games.
"It's definitely been a trying year," said Walker. "It's been a battle, to be honest."
Walker didn't have a banner day at the plate on Sunday, either. He grounded out to second base to lead off of third inning and popped out to catcher for the final out of the U.S. team's five-run inning.
"That stuff happens," said Walker. "On a good day, maybe I go out there and get two doubles or a base hit and a home run."
As the unofficial individual host of the game, Walker was never far from the spotlight. He was followed by cameramen from MLB.com and the local television stations, and he was the most sought-after interview by the print media. Walker wasn't about to let a 0-for-2 showing in his team's 8-5 win dampen his spirits.
"It's just a great weekend," said Walker. "It's something that's great to be a part of. I feel very fortunate for the situation that I was in."
With the midseason hullabaloo behind him, Walker is looking forward to accelerating his trek through the Pittsburgh farm system.
"I feel like I am starting to get back into my comfort level," said Walker. "I think this second half, if I focus on being selective at the plate, having a good approach, and playing well behind the plate, then I would think I'll be up in Altoona sooner than expected."
Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.