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The Show: Jeremy Walker of Advance called up to Atlanta’s bullpen

Screen shot of a Fox Sports South broadcast.

By Brian Pitts
Davie Enterprise Record

Jeremy Walker of Advance chased the Major League Baseball dream from Danville, Va., to Rome Ga., to Kissimmee, Fla., to Pearl, Ms., to Gwinnett County, Ga.

The dream began in June 2016, when the righthanded pitcher was picked by the Atlanta Braves in the fifth round of the MLB Draft.

The dream came true July 23, when Walker received the much-anticipated call. The call came late at night following Gwinnett’s game in Louisville. Walker was headed to The Show.

Wes Parsons’ rough outing in Atlanta’s 5-4 loss to Kansas City on July 23 set things in motion. He walked two and hit one batter in 1/3 inning. Following the game, Parsons was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett and Walker, 24, was called up to join the Braves’ bullpen.

“We had just gotten back to our hotel room (in Louisville),” Walker told Braves reporters. “We were just watching TV. I got a random phone call; I never answer those. My roommate (Thomas Burrows) said: ‘You might want to answer that.’ I ignored it and got the voicemail (from Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill). I called him back. What do you say? I said: ‘Alright, let’s go.’ He said: ‘You’ve got a flight tomorrow.’ I said: ‘Alright, I’m ready.’ I didn’t get much sleep.”

Walker is an Advance native who was a stalwart on the first two Ellis Middle teams in 2008-09. He led coach Mike Dinkins’ Jaguars to 15-1 and 13-0 seasons. He spent three years at Calvary Day from 2010-12, then transferred home to Davie for his senior season in 2013. Then-coach Bobby Byerly’s War Eagles went 16-8, and Walker was responsible for nearly half the wins. He dominated to the tune of 7-1 record and 2.02 ERA. He made 10 starts on the mound and recorded six complete games. He walked 22 and struck out 53 in 62.1 innings. In the 4-A playoffs, Davie stunned Ardrey Kell in the first round before losing to West Forsyth.

Walker pitched three years at Gardner-Webb University. After his junior year, he was the 139th pick in the MLB Draft.

Nobody could have foreseen this moment coming this soon in April, with Walker starting the 2019 season at Double-A Mississippi and getting converted into a reliever after three years of being a starter. But he rocketed up the ladder with his tremendous production out of the bullpen. For Mississippi, he posted a 2.45 ERA with five walks and 57 Ks in 58.2 innings. His scalpel-like precision — he was walking 2.8 percent of batters before he received the golden ticket to Atlanta — earned him a promotion to Class AAA Gwinnett on July 5.

Walker had a bumpy beginning for the Gwinnett Stripers — he gave up six runs across three innings in his first two games — but he smoothed it all out. His outrageous line in his last three Gwinnett games: eight innings, no hits, no runs, no walks, 10 Ks.

Walker’s Mississippi/Gwinnett stats in 2019: 26 appearances, 69.2 innings, 2.84 ERA, eight walks, 71 Ks. He earned seven saves in seven chances.

Not so long ago, Walker was flying under the Atlanta radar. He saw little action with the big-league Braves in spring training. He was ranked the 27th prospect in the farm system, according to MLB Pipeline. After just five Gwinnett appearances in 2019, he got called to the bigs.

Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said: “He doesn’t walk anybody. You watch video and he’s getting results and having a good year. It’s the same way I felt about Jacob Webb last year. You look at numbers, dig and see who these guys are. You go down there, you do good, you put up numbers like that and you get noticed. And at some point in time, you get tried. You think maybe we’re a righthander away sometimes. Who knows, this might be a kid we have internally to fill that role.”

•••

Other elements made the Kansas City-at-Atlanta game on July 24 an epic day in Davie County sports annals. Walker grew up adoring the Braves. What’s more, Whit Merrifield was in the opposite dugout, meaning two of the 50 players in uniform were Davie High graduates.

When Walker arrived in the clubhouse, he was surrounded by reporters.

Reporter: “How much did relieving help you?”

Walker: “I wouldn’t say it helped me necessarily. You just have a different mentality going from starter to reliever. You can focus for a shorter amount of time relieving. I like doing both, but I seemed to hit a jump as a reliever. Anything they want me to do I’m willing to do.”

Reporter: “Has it kind of hit you just how quickly this has happened?”

Walker: “I don’t think it’s real yet. It’s starting to get more and more, but when I get out there, start throwing and start playing catch before the game, it will get real.”

Reporter: “Go back to spring training. How many times did we even see you come over?”

Walker: “Most of my buddies went to big league camp and I wasn’t invited, which was fine. You’ve still got to do what you’ve got to do. I went over there three or four games. I threw twice. I did alright. I’d get two or three outs and then they’d pull me. It was good to get over there and get my feet wet a little bit. If you would have asked me then where I’d be now, I wouldn’t (have said) I’d be here.”

Reporter: “What was the first call you made last night after you got the news?”

Walker: “I called my dad (Joel) right away. He retired this year, so I know he’s not really busy. I said: ‘What are you doing tomorrow? Can you come to Atlanta?’ He was like: ‘What for?’ I said: ‘What else would you be coming to Atlanta for?’ He said: ‘No way.’ I said: ‘Yeah, man, get over here.’ He was a manager for a heating-and-air company. He’s worked his butt off for however long, so I’m happy he was able to retire and now he’s able to come. A lot of my family is coming.”

Kelsey Wingert of Fox Sports South evoked the Davie County storyline. Merrifield and Walker are both from Advance; Walker made sure reporters understood the pronunciation as “Add-vance.” Merrifield graduated from Davie six years earlier in 2007. They both work out in the offseason at Torque Performance and Fitness under the direction of owner Adam Barber. When Walker reached his locker, he found a note and a bottle of champagne from Merrifield, who understands the grind of the minor leagues after seeing 2,796 at-bats in the Royals’ farm system from 2010-17. He got his overdue call-up on May 18, 2016, he became an All-Star this season and he’s one of the top players in the majors.

Wingert: “You went to the same high school as Whit Merrifield.  Do you guys have any kind of relationship?”

Walker: “I work out with him. He sent me a little gift. I’ve been texting him. The dudes we work out with have been telling me to strike him out. Whit texted me today and said: ‘Sorry if I hit a bomb off you in your debut.’ I was like: ‘Shut up, Whit.’ I didn’t really get to know him until this past year when we started working out together. He’s a super good guy, and he’s blown up the past two years, so I’m happy for him. Hopefully I get in there and get to face him and see what happens.”

Wingert: “When you’re having the success you’ve had this season, are you paying attention (to Atlanta). Were you watching the game last night and aware of the bullpen struggling?”

Walker: “I try to stay off social media. I don’t have a Twitter. I don’t really want to know about all that stuff. I try to control what I do and how I’m doing. And if I can do that, I think the best things will happen.”

Reporter: “When you talked to your dad last night, did you think about how many miles he has driven you?”

Walker: “For sure. I don’t like getting sappy with him; we don’t really have that (kind of) relationship. I’m sure when I see him today I’ll say ‘thank you.’ He’s done everything for me — him and my mom (Lori) and brother (Jacob). I couldn’t be more thankful for them for all they’ve done for me.”

After Jeremy’s joyous phone call home, Joel and Lori made a rush of calls. Jeremy awoke at 8 a.m. and caught a flight at 10:45 a.m. Joel, Lori and a throng of family and friends scrambled Wednesday morning and headed to Atlanta. Joel and Lori arrived at SunTrust Park around 6, about an hour before the first pitch.

Lori said: “We were getting ready for bed (when Jeremy called Tuesday night). It’s surreal. You dream about it and you wonder, and then when it happens, it doesn’t seem real. It felt like a dream. All the miles on the road, all the ballgames through the years, that’s the pinnacle moment that every little boy hopes and dreams for. We both made phone calls, waking people up. We finally settled down around 2 a.m., but there wasn’t much sleeping going on.

“God’s timing in all of it is crazy. I mean, what are the chances they are playing (against) Whit? Whit was so kind and gracious and encouraging. They never played ball together. They never really knew each other until they started working out at Torque.”

The notion of Walker reaching Atlanta in 2019 seemed farfetched, but a string of stellar outings changed everything in a hurry.

Joel said: “He’s moved up one level each year, and that’s what we were expecting this year. He was in Double A this year and we were thinking maybe Triple A next year. When he got called up to Gwinnett, I definitely didn’t think it would be further than that this year. In his first two games in Triple A, he struggled. And then his next three games were really good. Like I tell him, you can’t have a rainbow without having a little rain. When I saw his name on my phone that late at night, I kinda thought that’s what it was. But still you don’t know.”

The day was perfectly summed up by Walker’s jersey number. He was handed 63 the day before Joel’s 63rd birthday. Several folks from Davie County were already in Atlanta to watch Merrifield. Fifty-plus more sped to Atlanta for game two of the series to watch Walker. To see two Davie County boys in the same park was a sight to behold.

Lori: “Of course, you have support from family. But our community … Davie County is a special community that loves one another. That’s where the emotions really come into play. When you come from a small town like Davie County, we’re just blessed. We come from a great church family (Green Meadows Baptist Church in Mocksville) that love one another. Green Meadows is hands down the best. It was a great show of love. You want to show your appreciation. People spend a lot of time and money and sacrifice by taking off from work.”

Walker — who is listed at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds but is more like 6-6, 220 according to his count — did not appear in the Braves’ 2-0 loss. That probably wasn’t a bad thing. Imagine trying to put all the euphoric emotions aside and finding the strength to pitch effectively after having little sleep and jumping on a plane.

Joel: “I think about the baseball side of it. He just got there. The catchers are professionals but Jeremy hasn’t thrown a pitch to them. How do they know what kind of pitches to call? So as much as we wanted him to, I thought it was good that he didn’t pitch.”

•••

But wait, there’s more. The first-place Braves headed to Philadelphia for a weekend series. Atlanta took two of three, Walker pitching the final inning in the Friday/Saturday wins. He more than held his own.

In his Atlanta debut on Friday, he entered in the ninth inning. Although Andrew Knapp greeted him with a first-pitch single, he induced Scott Kingery to ground into a 6-4-3 double play and got Jean Segura to hit a routine fly to center. Walker finished off the 9-2 win in seven pitches.

For good measure, Walker kept the momentum going Saturday. Again he entered in the ninth with the Braves comfortably ahead. He struck out Rhys Hoskins swinging. Then Nick Williams and Maikel Franco grounded out. Joel and Lori made it to Philly for this one and saw their son retire the side in order in 13 pitches.

July 24, 2019, will be etched in Davie sports fans’ memories for a long time. Two guys from Davie County in opposing dugouts? That’s absolutely bananas. Who knows how the rest of the season will turn out for Walker — he could stick in Atlanta; he could go back to Gwinnett when Webb comes off the injured list — but just reaching the majors is one heck of an accomplishment.

Lori: “The Lord’s in control of it all and He’s put you in the bullpen for a reason. Less than a month (after going to Gwinnett) he’s being called to the big leagues. That is just unreal.”

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