03/31/07 9:46 PM ET
Baker thrilled with new opportunities
By Owen Perkins / Special to MLB.com
The irony was in Baker taking Atkins' spot in the batting order. It was two years ago that Atkins strained a hamstring in an exhibition game in Colorado Springs, two days before the season started. And who took his spot in the Opening Day lineup, playing third base and knocking a homer in the dramatic victory? A guy who'd never played a game above Double-A: Baker.
Baker played 12 games with the Rockies in 2005 and only 61 with the Sky Sox, missing time because of a multitude of injuries that plagued him throughout the season. After an injury-free season at Triple-A in 2006, Baker was back for a September callup, hitting .368 in 18 games, smashing five home runs and driving home 21 RBIs.
Now Atkins and Baker are teammates, with Baker leaving Tucson knowing he's on the Opening Day roster -- unlike two years ago, when he knew he wasn't ready but was called upon at the final hour.
"I'm thrilled and excited," Baker said of the nod from the Rox. "You always want to make the team on your own merit. I made the team last time, but Garrett was the third baseman and I made it because he got hurt. It's kind of ironic, because I've been the one who's gotten hurt so much in my career in the past."
Even though he's made two trips to the big leagues over the past two seasons, learning the Rockies wanted him on their roster from the start was especially gratifying for the 25-year-old.
"[Manager Clint Hurdle] told me this last weekend when we were in Tempe," Baker said, having heard the news after a Saturday Cactus League game with the Angels. "I felt like I played pretty well, I knew the situation I was in, but until you hear him say it and come out and tell you -- I felt sky high the rest of the way home. I was calling everybody and letting them know. I was real excited."
Baker will take on a new role with the Rockies, though he's had a good taste of it in Tucson this spring. In 2005, all of his appearances were starts at third base. In 2006 he made all his starts in the outfield as the Rockies tried to groom him for a position with more potential, given Atkins' iron grip on the hot corner.
The 2007 version of Jeff Baker is ready to play right, left, first and third, spelling the middle-of-the-order sluggers and coming off the bench for critical pinch-hit at-bats.
"It's one of those things that doesn't need to be said, what my role is," said Baker. "I'm ready to play every day. If my name's in the starting lineup, then I'm going to go out there and get my four at-bats and maybe do some damage. If I pinch-hit, or if I don't play, or if I go in as a defensive replacement, whatever it is, I'm going to be mentally ready for it."
Ultimately, the Rockies can't resist the potential for damage from Baker's bat. With Steve Finley, John Mabry and Jamey Carroll joining Baker in reserve roles, the Rockies should have as dynamic a bench as they've ever had, boasting four players who can change a game whenever they enter it.
On other clubs, a guy with Baker's talent could get antsy in a supporting role, but Hurdle has excelled at keeping his bench players active and involved, resisting the pitfalls of relying on players once a week while forgetting their faces the other six days and eight innings.
"One thing Skip's always been great about when I look back on the years is [that] he tries to get those guys regular starts to keep them fresh for pinch-hitting," Baker said. "From the year [Jorge] Piedra did it to the year Greg Norton did it to the year Mark Sweeney did it. Even Carroll last year, to an extent. Jamey was coming off the bench, then an opening opened up, and Jamey found more and more playing time. It's going to be a situation where they're going to give me every opportunity to succeed. It's one of those things I just have to capitalize on."
Though Piedra excelled in the role one year, he struggled the next, ultimately earning his release. It's a role that's often played by veterans like Sweeney, Norton and Mabry, but Baker is not fazed by the challenge.
"Coming up in the Minor Leagues, I've always started and played every day, so I haven't had that much experience [coming off the bench], but from a mental standpoint, it's not going to be as difficult as some people make it out to be," he said. "You've just got to be mentally ready. Just go in there and play, take your at-bat. You're only going to get one at-bat, possibly, per game. The biggest thing, from talking to some of the older guys, is if you go through a stretch where you don't get a couple hits in those ABs, don't start mentally beating yourself up. It is pinch-hitting, and it is hard to do. Nobody aspires to go in and pinch-hit. Everybody wants to start. It's a role that you have to get adjusted to. We'll see how it goes."
For now, though he may not be starting on a daily basis, Baker is starting the season with the team. He is as ready to embrace his role as he is full of that Opening Day optimism.
"We have a lot of strengths," he said of the Rockies, adding that there are a lot of reasons for hope on the eve of a new season. "Especially now. Everyone's 0-0."
Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.