Atkins gets 'work day' off to hone swing

Atkins gets 'work day' off to hone swing

DENVER -- On the one hand, there's tinkering with the Rockies' lineup, which manager Clint Hurdle does consistently and often with an instinctive knack for finding the hot hand.

Take Wednesday night, when Matt Murton got his second start of the season and homered off Randy Johnson to lead off the fifth inning and open the flood gates on an 11-run rampage by the Rockies. Murton's first start with the Rockies came last week in San Francisco, also facing the Big Unit.

"I haven't had many guys that I can just say, 'I've got a guy who when Randy pitches, we're going to throw him in there,'" Hurdle pointed out. "For him to have his first two starts against Randy Johnson, that's case-specific work. He's done well. By no means does he have a patent on how to hit him, but he's had some good swings against him. Any time you get more people involved in your offense, the better off everybody's going to be."

As an ex-player who spent much of his career coming off the bench, Hurdle has always had an eye for using the entire roster and keeping his bench fresh. That's the tinkerer in him.

But Wednesday afternoon, Hurdle was engaged "on the other hand," dispensing bench time as he has done on a few occasions this year -- assigning a "work day" to the struggling Garrett Atkins. The third baseman has been one of the Rockies' most productive contributors over the course of his career, but he's struggling with a .224 average after his first 25 games.

"Atkins' at-bats aren't what he wants or what we need," Hurdle said before Wednesday's second game of a two-game series with San Francisco. "We talked about it, we watched tape. [Hitting coach Don Baylor] is working with him. He's well aware of the breakdown.

"Maybe back him away, give him some opportunity to work, reestablish some mechanics. There's an area that he was so good at from '05-'07 that he's not covering at the plate right now. We need to get him back in line with that, because he provides a valuable role in our offense, in the middle of our lineup. The consistent good at-bats, quality at-bats, squaring balls up, that's been challenging."

Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is another player who recently got a pair of Hurdle's "work days" to focus on addressing issues at the plate without having his mind wrapped up in all the elements of playing in a game. Tulowitzki was hitting .167 when Hurdle sat him down, and he's responded by hitting .276 since coming back into the lineup, slowly lifting his season average back above .200 as he returns to form.

"I don't like them at all," Tulowitzki said of the days out of the lineup. "It's tough, because you never want a day off. I want to be in there. I feel like I can help in some way, even if I'm not swinging it the best. There's guys that go through slumps, but I feel like I help defensively. And I want to be in there every single day."

For whatever reason, Hurdle's prescription seemed to cure what ailed Tulowitzki. The shortstop has been elevated to the No. 2 spot in the lineup, where he made his fourth start Thursday, with the Rockies undefeated in his previous three starts back in the top part of the order.

Still, Tulowitzki sticks to his guns and makes the case that the work he needs to do can be done just as well on the field.

"Some guys like to find their swing, they don't want to go into any game without their 'A' swing. So they'll be happy with [a day off], because they want to find their swing, but that's just not me," Tulowitzki said. "You can swing all you want in the cage, but until you take it out there on the field and make adjustments out there, come game time, it's not the same. It doesn't mean I can't get better.

"Yeah, I can watch film go in the cage, and try to help myself, but I'd rather be out there, because of the defensive side of the ball. I like to play defense so much that I feel like I'm going to help out there, even if I'm not contributing offensively."

Ultimately, Hurdle is happy with the results his practice has produced, and if Atkins can make the same kind of adjustments and improvements that Tulowitzki made, the lineup should be the better for it.

"We have a plan, we're following it, and the guys embrace it in the fact that they understand that I'm going to do what I believe is best for the ballclub, their personal feelings aside," Hurdle said of the effectiveness of these carefully chosen working days out of the lineup. "It all comes back to, 'If you want more, do more.'

"We've had other guys we can give the ball or the bat to to see how they can do while we patch you up and put you back together in a better place and get you back out there. At the end of the day, it's all about what's best for the ballclub, and I do think they understand it. Nobody gets taken out of the lineup for swinging the bat."

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.