Walker stars at the plate, in the field

Minnesota infielder Tyler Walker attempts to steal a base against Wisconsin on Sunday, April 7, 2013, at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Daily File Photo; Jaak Jensen

Minnesota infielder Tyler Walker attempts to steal a base against Wisconsin on Sunday, April 7, 2013, at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

by Jared Christensen

This weekend, the Gophers will look to improve on their best-ever start to a season when they travel to Tempe, Ariz., for the Louisville Slugger Classic.

No. 20 Minnesota has lost only one game all season, and that loss came against top-ranked Florida.

And while the team has been hot to start the season, junior infielder Tyler Walker has been just as impressive. Walker is tied for the Big Ten lead with three triples this season.

The Gophers’ leadoff hitter offers a rare combination of speed and power — her three stolen bases are the most of any Big Ten player who’s slugging higher than .700 this year.

Walker said that being seen as a power hitter enables her to hit with variety at the plate, which throws off defenses.

“That’s the fun part,” she said. “I hit for power, so I can use my short game when they least expect it.

“That’s my favorite part of being a power hitter — I can drop a bunt for a base hit when they play me deep.”

Minnesota head coach Jessica Allister said in certain situations, Walker has the automatic go-ahead to lay down a bunt and use her wheels to get on base.

“When she’s in RBI situations, we want her to drive the ball because we know she can,” Allister said. “If there’s nobody on, she absolutely has the green light to drop one down.”

That strategy has worked well for the Gophers, and Walker’s 12 RBIs this year are second on the team — an uncommon stat for a leadoff hitter.

Walker’s teammates also praised her ability to hit effectively from the leadoff spot.

Gophers junior Kaitlyn Richardson said she has confidence the team can score right away when Walker gets on base.

“She can start the game off with a home run, or she can start the game off with a bunt,” Richardson said. “If she gets on, I know we’re going to score that inning.”

That confidence isn’t ill-founded, either. Walker has made it on base 25 times this year and has scored on 14 of those trips.

Minnesota senior pitcher Sara Moulton said she still remembers when Walker first arrived at Minnesota as a wide-eyed freshman.

“I remember her hitting off me in the first week,” Moulton said. “And she smoked one. That’s when I knew she was here to play.”

While the offensive numbers tend to catch the eye, Moulton said Walker’s glowing glove at shortstop helps her confidence in the circle.

“I’ll tell her, ‘Ty, I’m going to get you a ground ball here.’ And she’ll respond, ‘I’ve got you, Moult,’” Moulton said. “It’s great to have that kind of support behind me.”

This weekend, Walker will have the opportunity to flash both her speed and her glove against some stiff competition — tournament host Arizona State is currently ranked fourth in the nation.

Walker said the team will get up for Sunday’s contest with the Sun Devils in hopes of earning a win against a highly ranked team.

“We learned a lot from the Florida loss,” she said. “This week, we’re out for blood.”