Rockies getting key contributions from rookies

Rockies getting key contributions from rookies

Rockies getting key contributions from rookies
DENVER -- Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon has fans cheering, singing along with his walkup song, "Your Love," and racking the trivia matter in their brains to recall the name of the group that recorded it a quarter-century ago. ... That's it! The Outfield!

Quite a bit is being asked of Blackmon -- who has started nine games since being called up from Triple-A Colorado Springs and hit .345, plus gone 5-for-5 on steal attempts -- and a whole host of rookies being asked to play major parts in what the Rockies hope will be a turnaround story. But forget about rookie jitters. Time at the ballpark is actually time to relax.

"You'd think so, except for all these interviews," Blackmon joked, with an easy smile. "Off the field has been a mess, a good mess. It's a good problem to have -- family and friends, coming in and out, trying to figure out where to live, a busy day every day right now."

Several rookies have been busy contributing to the Rockies. For example:

• Blackmon, 24, who was dominating in Colorado Springs with a .337 batting average, 10 home runs, 49 RBIs and 12 steals, has shown signs of producing enough from the No. 7 spot to accommodate a renovated batting order that has outfielder Carlos Gonzalez hitting leadoff and finding a swing that has been missing the first couple of months of the year.

• Chris Nelson has batted .318 in 10 games, including nine starts, and has taken over for Jonathan Herrera as the starting second baseman, although he remains a possibility to play third or shortstop if the situation dictates.

• Left-handed reliever Matt Reynolds, called up last August and placed in big games, is striking out batters at a .309 clip, seventh-highest in the National League. Reynolds was the only lefty in the bullpen until another rookie, recent callup Rex Brothers, emerged. Brothers has five strikeouts in five innings over five appearances.

"All you're asking for from these young people, when they're new on the scene, is just contribute."
-- Jim Tracy

• Right-handed starting pitcher Juan Nicasio, called up in late May, has gone 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA in four starts. With 18 strikeouts against five walks, one intentional, Nicasio, 24, seems to have a solid hold on a spot in the rotation as long as his aggressiveness continues.

• Right-hander Clayton Mortensen, who saw brief action with the Cardinals in 2008 and the Athletics in 2009 and 2010, but not enough to be beyond rookie status, has provided a lift when injuries have affected the starting rotation and the bullpen. Mortensen is 2-3 with a 3.26 ERA in 10 games, including six starts.

Rockies manager Jim Tracy entered the year expecting some of rookies to play important roles.

The need might have exceeded his expectations, considering that pitching ace Ubaldo Jimenez has just one win into June, No. 2 pitcher Jorge De La Rosa is gone for the year because of left elbow surgery, Opening Day third baseman Ian Stewart has been demoted to Colorado Springs and regular center fielder Dexter Fowler was slumping to a point that a demotion was becoming a possibility before he suffered a midsection muscle strain.

Still, it's good to call up inexperienced players and not feel shy about depending on them.

"What is there not to like and or feel good about as far as the contributions that have been made thus far by these two young guys?" Tracy said. "All you're asking for from these young people, when they're new on the scene, is just contribute.

"Don't get outside of your means by trying to make a statement: 'Hey, I belong.' Just play. That's the most relaxing and the easiest environment to put a young player into."

Going to the big leagues is a heady experience for anyone, but there is a difference between handling the introductory responsibilities during a September callup, when either the team's season is decided or any playing time is a get-your-feet-wet proposition.

"I was a little surprised," said Nicasio, who had 63 strikeouts to 10 walks in 58 2/3 innings at Tulsa. "When they called me to go to the big leagues, I went, 'Oh.' I figured it would be September when the rosters expand. I was surprised, but I said, 'OK. I'm going to work hard.' In my mind, it's the same game, Double-A and big leagues. I can't think, 'Oh, my god, it's the big leagues, the stadiums ...' I try to think same as in Double-A. Pitch down in the zone."

But the Rockies have put two rookies in the regular lineup, two more in key bullpen positions and one in the rotation while they try to overcome a slow start and contend as expected in the National League West.

The inexperienced players aren't running from the responsibility.

Nelson saw action in 17 games late last season. The Rockies made a decision early in Spring Training to move Nelson to Minor League camp and allow him to leave no doubt about his Major League readiness by hitting .315 with five home runs and 40 RBIs in 49 games.

"This is the first time I've gotten called up when somebody wasn't hurt or they just needed the extra guy," said Nelson, 25, a top pick out of high school in 2004 who battled injuries and had to learn to deal with expectations during his long Minor League apprenticeship. "That made me feel good coming up here. I'm looking to take advantage of the opportunity."

At 26 years old and with 18 innings under his belt last season, Reynolds is grizzled in comparison to the fellow rookies. He helps smooth their entrance as much as possible. For example, he pointed Brothers to a website that helped him find a place to stay. At least in NL West cities, Reynolds can provide restaurant recommendations for the new players.

But Reynolds said he is learning himself. He found himself listening to Brothers earlier this week, when the Padres were in town.

"Anthony Rizzo [a touted first-base prospect], just got called up to the Padres, but Rex pitched against him in Triple-A," Reynolds said. "We shared information. Likewise, when we go to play, maybe, the Giants, I'll let him know how I've pitched [the Giants'] Aubrey Huff, so he'll have an idea how I attacked him, what's worked, what hasn't worked."

In each case, the callups filled a need. An option would have been to trade a Minor Leaguer for an established lefty, but that doesn't fit the Rockies' model -- not with a payroll that must be watched and a stated goal to build from within. So they spent the early part of this season training Brothers, a supplemental first-round pick in 2009, at Triple-A so they wouldn't have to do it in Major League games.

"What I had to do before I got here was really learn how to lock down and work through those situations," Brothers said. "The intentional walk to [the Dodgers' Matt] Kemp to get to the left-hander, I did that more than I normally would in Triple-A. That has all been in preparation to come here and help."

Thursday's day off gave the players time for all those logistics that no doubt cause stress away from the field. But they can relax when they arrive at Coors Field for Friday's opener of a three-game Interleague series with the Tigers, knowing there's a team benefitting from what they do best.

"I always like to think that my skill set can add value to the team," Blackmon said. "That's my goal. I definitely want to be part of a playoff team. That's what we're trying to do, trying to win games, get in the playoffs and be the best team out there. Hopefully, I can help be a part of that."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.