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08/30/09 4:11 PM ET

Gonzalez returns quickly from hand ills

Rockies outfielder back in lineup with hopes of staying hot

SAN FRANCISCO -- With a couple of freaky left hand injuries behind him, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez returned to the Rockies' lineup for Sunday's finale of a three-game set, as the team hoped to avoid being swept by the Giants.

On Aug. 22, he took a stitch near the base of the thumb after accidentally puncturing it with a steak knife while cleaning up after dinner. He returned quickly, but Thursday suffered a deep bruise and internal bleeding in the hand after diving for a line drive.

On Saturday, Gonzalez was supposed to take light batting practice in an attempt to gradually make his return. But Gonzalez felt so good he took a full session, then pinch-hit in the ninth inning of the Rockies' 5-3 loss. Gonzalez struck out.

"I was supposed to be scheduled to play on Tuesday, but I figured, 'You know what? I'm ready to go,'" Gonzalez said. "I decided not to even think about it. It was a good feeling."

With Dexter Fowler on the disabled list with a left knee bruise, Gonzalez is likely to be the regular leadoff hitter. Eric Young Jr., a lightning-fast callup from Triple-A Colorado Springs, can be used off the bench to put pressure on defenses.

Gonzalez, making his first start in eight games, had 12 RBIs in his last 17 games and home runs in six of his last 15 games. He was hitting .375 and had a .727 on-base percentage since the All-Star break.

The challenge will be to not let the time off because of the injuries disturb his rhythm.

"When you're out of the lineup for a few days, you're not going to be the same, but if you keep your mindset you'll be fine," Gonzalez said.

Before the break, most outsiders believed the challenge for Gonzalez, 23, was whether he was capable of holding onto his roster spot. He hit .202 with a .280 on-base percentage before the break.

But after Gonzalez drove in 59 runs in Triple-A before his June 5 callup, the Rockies determined that the only way to complete his education was in the Majors.

The Rockies acquired Gonzalez from the Athletics as part of last winter's Matt Holliday trade. From the beginning, the Rockies knew Gonzalez -- one of baseball's top prospects -- needed work. He had difficulty laying off inside pitches off the plate. Hitting coach Don Baylor also noticed that Gonzalez also gripped the bat so deeply in the palms of his hands that he often cost himself the bat speed that loose wrists can provide.

The Rockies also instituted mental changes. They asked Gonzalez to forget the power-hitter label that had been slapped on him in the Minors. That meant a different approach -- the thought process of a .300 hitter -- to batting practice that Baylor and first-base coach Glenallen Hill instituted.

Rather than concentrate on extending his arms, they wanted him to focus on hitting where the ball is pitched and driving balls the opposite way. It's all coming together.

"When you believe in something, you don't expose yourself to the sample size of it and, when it doesn't work out the way you want it to, quit on it," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said. "Not when you see the type of tools that this young man brings to the table.

"This is a very special player and moving forward he's going to become even more special."

Gonzalez likes the new self-image the Rockies have given him.

"I take it very seriously," said Gonzalez, who was a D-backs prospect before being sent to the Athletics for pitcher Dan Haren before the 2008 season. "I've heard about power since I got into pro ball. But I'd rather be a good hitter. I have the talent to do it, and it'll give me more opportunity for my career."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.