03/31/09 7:32 PM ET
Helton back in the game -- literally
Slugger's power, hampered by bulging disk in '08, returns full-swing
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
Now, he cautions not to become too excited about him -- yet.
"It's still a long season," Helton said. "It's not about going out and being productive in Spring Training. It's about going out and doing it for the length of a 162-game season. I'm just concerned about keeping up what I'm doing now, staying healthy and staying strong."
The years of back problems culminated in a nightmarish 2008 that saw Helton, a four-time All-Star and three-time Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner, play in 83 games and hit .264 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs.
Finally, the Rockies placed Helton on the disabled list in early July. The problem was a bulging disk that was placing pressure on a nerve, causing numbness in his left leg. The injury affected Helton's hitting style at its core.
A hitter needs to have a solid batting stance, which means the foot farthest from the pitcher should be solidly planted in the batter's box. That keeps the head still and allows the batter to use his hands and hit the ball in front of the plate.
Manager Clint Hurdle prefers not to think about watching Helton flailing to survive in the batter's box last year. He's more than happy to discuss what's happening now.
"I see a man that's standing up there holding his back side, and not coming off his back side," Hurdle said. "He's in a very confident place right now."
Helton, 35, is well aware of the areas that need to improve.
"Running-wise, I'm still not good," he said. "I've got some issues with my running right now. It's going to improve, but I'm still taking it easy on the bases now. I'm taking it a little easy in the field. But I feel a lot better, and once I get out on the field I'm not concerned with it."
Helton hitting effectively in the No. 3 spot gives the run producers behind him a guy who is on base frequently. Many players would have loved to have had a .391 on-base percentage of last season, and that was his career low.
But Helton knows, as everyone in the lineup last season should, that having a group of sluggers doesn't mean much if a team doesn't have good fundamental, situational hitting. With his back no longer a concern, he figures to be a leader in that area.
"We have a chance of being a good offensive team," he said. "We've still got to play really good baseball. Offensively, we've got to do all the little things that it takes to win games, not starting in the seventh inning. Every chance we get, we've got to go out and score runs."
A healthy Helton, especially if how he's hitting now continues, increases the Rockies' chances to score and win.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.