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As the Rockies play out the season, Sam Hilliard finds himself under the microscope. He’s just fine with that.
“I have been getting a lot of playing time since I’ve been back up, a chance to show what I can do,” Hilliard said Thursday before starting in center field against the Giants at San Francisco. “I’ve always been of the opinion that what was holding me back was limited reps. It’s a hard (thing), but a lot of guys have to go through it. But I feel a lot more confident with reps I’ve been getting. And it’s been fun.”
Since getting recalled from Triple-A on July 16, Hilliard slashed .281/.352/.625 with six home runs, four doubles and 12 RBIs in 22 games, entering Thursday. He hit his career-high eighth homer of the season Sunday vs. Miami and blasted four home runs in six games from Aug. 1-8.
It’s been an encouraging stretch for a Rockies team that’s looking to beef up its inconsistent offense. And as the Rockies look toward 2022, they need to know just what they’ve got in players such as Connor Joe, Yonathan Daza and Garrett Hampson. But of all of the players under sharp scrutiny, it’s Hilliard whose talent is most tantalizing.
He stands 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, yet he runs like the wind and gobbles up ground in center at Coors Field. A left-handed hitter, he has the kind of raw power that makes hitting homers into the second deck look graceful and easy. He launched a monster 465-foot homer last week against the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta, the third-longest homer hit by a Rockie this season, behind only Ryan McMahon and Trevor Story.
But Hilliard has a lot of work to do if he’s going to fulfill his potential. First on his to-do list is cutting down his strikeouts. He’s struck out in 35.5% of his at-bats this season, and his career strikeout rate is 33.4%. That number is down to 28.1% since his July call-up, but it’s still too high.
“It starts with his swing,” manager Bud Black said. “His swing is a little bit more compact now and it’s a little shorter and more direct to the ball. That’s something that he has to continue to work on.
“He has to continue to work on putting the ball in play. And we have seen a more concentrated effort to do that, even with two strikes. Sam, with his strength, if he just puts the ball in play more, I think the average will climb.”
Hilliard believes he’s on the right track.
“I believe I can give us the kind of consistent offense that will help us win,” Hilliard said. “Most of all, it’s about shortening my swing and shortening my stride a little bit.
“I’m a long guy and I have long levers, so I’m just shortening my swing as much as I can. I believe I’m on my way to getting the most out of the swing that I have. That’s just about cleaning up some things.”
Hilliard has talked quite a bit about the mental side of his game and how he struggled when he was sent back to Triple-A Albuquerque after he came out of the big-league gate hitting .108 (3-for-34).
“That wasn’t me,” Hilliard said. “It was someone else who was down in the dumps.”
Black, however, believes that the solution to Hilliard’s struggles is more physical than mental.
“I know he’s mentioned the mental part of it, but for me, it’s physical, because the swing has to change,” Black said. “And it has been changing.”
Pitch recognition is also something Hilliard is working on.
“The breaking ball has given him a hard time,” Black said. “The high-velocity fastball gives a lot of players trouble, especially if it’s located well. But I think with Sam, breaking-ball recognition has to improve as well.”
Rodgers still out. Second baseman Brendan Rodgers, hit by a pitch in his right hand in Saturday’s game against Miami, was out of the lineup for the fourth consecutive game Thursday. Black said that Rodgers’ hand is still sore and that team trainers are trying to get the swelling down.
The injury interrupted Rodgers’ hot streak. He extended his career-best hitting streak to 14 games on Saturday before leaving the game. The streak is the second-longest active streak in the majors and longest in the National League. He’s hitting .362 (21-for-58) with four home runs, four doubles and one triple during the streak.
“I would like to think he’s close (to returning), I’d like to think tomorrow,” Black said. “But he’s day-to-day.”
Rockies LHP Austin Gomber (9-6, 3.79) at Giants RHP Anthony DeSclafani (10-5, 3.28)
7:45 p.m. Friday, Oracle Park
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: KOA 850 AM/94.1 FM
Gomber was good again in his last start, striking out a career-high nine over six scoreless innings against Miami at Coors Field. The left-hander is 5-1 with a 1.70 ERA in eight home starts but has been less effective on the road, going 4-5 with a 5.40 ERA in 11 starts. He’s been good and bad at Oracle Park this season. On April 9, he held the Giants to two runs over 6 1/3 innings, but on April 26, the Giants ripped him for nine runs in just 1 2/3 innings. DeSclafani is scheduled to return from the injured list Friday. He’s been on IL since Aug. 4 because of right shoulder fatigue. He was pitching poorly, posting a 6.63 ERA and 1.47 WHIP over his prior four starts. In his last start, against Arizona on Aug. 2, DeSclafani allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits and a walk with five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings. The right-hander served up eight homers in his last seven starts after giving up just eight in his first 15 starts. In five career starts vs. the Rockies, the right-hander is 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA.
Trending: While most of his teammates have struggled to hit on the road, right fielder Charlie Blackmon has done well. Entering Thursday night’s game, his .292 road batting average led the Rockies and was tied for 13th in the NL. In his last 28 road games (since May 30), he’s hitting .327, the highest road average in the National League across that span.
At issue: The Rockies were shut out for the 14th time
on Tuesday at Houston, all on the road, the most shutouts in the majors and the most in franchise history. They were held to five or fewer hits in 13 of those shutouts, the most scoreless games on the road with five or fewer hits since the 1972 Texas Rangers had 15 such games.
Saturday: Rockies LHP Kyle Freeland (3-6, 4.65) at Giants RHP Johnny Cueto (7-6, 3.89), 7:05 p.m., ATTRM
Sunday: Rockies RHP Jon Gray (7-8, 3.85) at LHP Alex Wood (9-3, 4.03), 2:05 p.m, ATTRM