Helton not looking too far forward in race
Slugger having resurgence, but not yet focused on playoffs
DENVER -- Rockies first baseman Todd Helton isn't one to talk much about the future, no matter how bright it should be. All the team needs is moderate success in the season's final nine games to clinch the National League Wild Card -- its second playoff berth in three seasons.
Given the way the years melted away and Helton played with joy and abandon on the Rockies' ride to the 2007 World Series, you would think Helton is like a child who can't wait to unwrap presents beneath the tree. But right now he's curbing the anticipation by figuratively saying it's not even close enough to the holiday to put up the tree.
"We haven't been looking ahead, so we're not going to start now," Helton said. "Obviously, if it gets really close, you'll start thinking about it. But it won't be until we're celebrating. Not until then."
And why not so fiercely cling to a one-day-at-a-time mentality? This time last year, Helton didn't know how much of a future he had as a player, much less that the future could include another postseason berth.
Last Sept. 30, Helton underwent a delicate lower back surgery to relieve pressure that a bulging disk was placing on a nerve. The pain and decreased mobility had led to the worst numbers of Helton's career -- .267, seven home runs, 29 RBIs in 83 games.
Dr. Robert Watkins, the noted California surgeon who performed the arthroscopic procedure, has a list of high-profile success on players such as the Dodgers' Rafael Furcal and the Giants' Randy Johnson. But it was anyone's guess what would become of Helton, who would turn 36 on Aug. 20.
But Helton has stayed faithful to his rehab program, and the results are startling to those who saw Helton struggle for extension and power in his swing all last season.
Helton entered Thursday night's game against the Padres batting .317 -- fourth in the NL. His .409 on-base percentage was sixth-highest in the league. The 40-plus homer performances of the early part of his career are well-behind him, but his 14 home runs, 80 RBIs, 35 doubles and three triples represent a productive season from the No. 3 spot in his batting order.
His year has gone so smoothly that he can snicker about a slump.
During the Rockies' last road trip, a nine-gamer, Helton went 2-for-24. Toward the end, he shaved his now-familiar beard and goatee. The public story is he made a mistake shaving, but it could have been a slump-busting move.
"It's not the first time ... it happens," Helton said.
Then he laughed. "I don't want to peak too soon."
The biggest place Helton's health shows is in his defense. His career .996 fielding percentage is tops among active first basemen. This year, he has returned to making acrobatic plays on hard-hit balls. His ability to handle off-target throws allows his fellow infielders to play with abandon.
Helton acknowledges that being healthy has unlocked his defense, and health has played a role in that. But don't ask him to compare the difference in how he feels.
"I'm just worried about playing the game," Helton said.
For him, that's too much like looking to a painful fast. He likes that even less than talking about the exciting future.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.