Quick-starting Nelson learning on the fly
Third baseman has performed well while developing his skills
DENVER -- Chris Nelson thought he understood the elementary school process: stay quiet and do the work in class, save his voice for recess. Then a phone call came to his father."I was 7, and I didn't want to raise my hand, didn't want to be the one asking the question after she had taught the lesson," Nelson said. "[The teacher] called the house and said, 'He needs to ask more questions.' "I was like, 'What?' That was when my dad told me, 'A stupid question is one that's not asked.'" Nelson is 26 and starting at third base for the Rockies, but school is nowhere close to being out for him. Whether it's in early fielding, baserunning or hitting sessions with the coaching staff, or jovial conversations with older teammates sprinkled with good advice, Nelson is reaching for knowledge after making an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career. The lessons are working. Going into the Rockies' game at Miller Park against the Brewers on Friday night, Nelson is batting .306 with four doubles, two coming in the Rockies' 8-4 victory over the Padres at Coors Field on Wednesday night. Nelson, who bats eighth, went 11-for-25 (.440) in the team's first homestand of the season, hitting safely in seven of the nine games. So far, Nelson has been an upgrade at third base, a problem last season when Ian Stewart, now on the Cubs, battled slumps and injuries all year. Rockies third basemen produced just a .222 average in 2011. But after bouncing between Triple-A Colorado Springs and the Majors the past two seasons, Nelson has proven ready for his big chance. The Rockies began the season with Nelson and Jordan Pacheco, another young hitter, playing third, but Nelson's start allowed the club to send Pacheco to Triple-A Colorado Springs for daily experience. "[Nelson] showed us enough last year that we were very confident in the fact that he could play third base and do a very good job of that," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "We also felt that what we were seeing in bits and pieces of the previous two seasons, that given some regular opportunity, that down toward the bottom part of that lineup, he could be a force offensively." The Rockies made Nelson their No. 1 Draft choice in 2004 out of Redan High School near Atlanta, and he batted in prime lineup spots for much of his time in the Minors. But as his big league opportunities finally came, he realized those spots were occupied. The No. 8 spot requires a mix of patience and aggressiveness. Hoping for a quick groundout, pitchers try to force the eighth hitter to bite at marginal offerings. If that doesn't happen, pitchers are fine with a walk -- especially with two outs and runners in scoring position, since the pitcher bats next. There are cases where the No. 8 hitter reaches base and actually hasn't done the optimal job. "I went to him the first week of the season and talked to him about hitting eighth, how tough it is," Rockies hitting coach Carney Lansford said. "Guys that hit third and fourth in the Minor Leagues, most of the time they're not going to hit that here, unless they're a rare exception. They have to adjust, and he's done a nice job." To make the most of it, Nelson had to put his elementary school skills to work. "This is a new experience," Nelson said. "I've been asking [teammate] Jason Giambi what I should do in certain situations with however many outs, when is the time to be aggressive, when is the time not to be aggressive. I've had a lot of questions for Carney and different people about how to approach the No. 8 position. I've been getting some good advice." It wasn't easy at first. Nelson went 0-for-7 during the season-opening series at Houston. "After the first couple of games, I talked to him and told him, 'Do not press, do not go home and worry about this,'" veteran first baseman Todd Helton said. "It's going to come. He's done a great job of not pressing and keeping the same approach he had in the spring." Throughout the early part of the season, Nelson has taken early pregame sessions as extra class work. After a couple of throwing errors, he has taken extra ground balls with third-base coach Rich Dauer and special assistant Vinny Castilla watching closely. Before Monday's 7-1 loss to the Padres, Nelson worked with bench coach Tom Runnells on his lead from second base, and it paid off in a fifth-inning steal of third. "He's got a lot to learn, and I say that in a fun way," Runnells said. "It's a joy to work with anybody that wants to get better and has a thirst for knowledge." Last season, Nelson played more second base (29 games) than third (24), and he continues to keep his skills sharp at second and shortstop. The Rockies also believe he could swing to the outfield if necessary. Those skills could keep him on the field if third baseman Nolan Arenado, the Rockies' top position prospect, continues to hit for average and power in the Minors. Arenado is hitting .364 with a home run and nine RBIs at Double-A Tulsa, though the Rockies are careful not to rush players. As long as Nelson produces, Arenado will have the development time he needs. Nelson said he will always put effort into learning various positions. "All I can think about is being the best baseball player I can be," Nelson said. "I've never been one to think about who's behind me or who's ahead of me. I just play my game. It's gotten me to where I am. I'm not going to change that at all."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.