By Jack Etkin
DENVER -- With spring training winding down for the Colorado Rockies, Charlie Blackmon endured a very ill-timed tailspin. He strung together 13 hitless at-bats over five games, at a time when roster decisions were approaching. The Rockies had acquired outfielders Drew Stubbs and Brandon Barnes over the winter, and Stubbs was an Opening Day lock with his $4.1 million salary. Michael Cuddyer in right and Carlos Gonzalez in left were outfield fixtures. Corey Dickerson, who had been impressive as a rookie in 2013, was again hitting exceedingly well. Blackmon began to wonder about his fate.
"I thought I wasn't going to make the team," Blackmon said. "I was having a fine spring until the last week or so. Traditionally, you don't have six outfielders on the team. So I was thinking more than I should've, probably, and trying to do the math on my own and didn't know where I would fit in."
The Rockies did start the season with six outfielders, and Blackmon soon went on an otherworldly surge. He went 6-for-6 with three doubles, a home run, five RBI and four runs scored in the Rockies' home opener. Within weeks, manager Walt Weiss was calling Blackmon "a weapon" atop the Rockies' lineup, because of his ability to run and hit for power, and "invaluable" for his ability to play all three outfield positions well.
"Coming out of spring, I didn't feel that great," Blackmon said. "But I know spring training's different than the regular season... I know that I'm capable of playing really well. I didn't think I'd start as well as I did. But then again, I don't want to say I'm surprised."
Bizarre injuries had bedeviled Blackmon. He sustained a broken left foot rounding second base in 2011, in his 27th major league game, and turf toe in his big left toe that cost him two months of the 2012 season. A staph infection in spring training last year cost him any chance to open the year with the Rockies. They traded incumbent center fielder Dexter Fowler to Houston last winter for Barnes and pitcher Jordan Lyles, creating uncertainty about who would play center field. A platoon of some sort seemed possible, and the leadoff spot was also unsettled.
As it turned out, Weiss had put less stock in Blackmon's spring training numbers than in his final two months of 2013, when he filled in for the injured Fowler. Blackmon finished last season hitting .309/.336/.467, with six homers and 22 RBI in 82 games. Over parts of three seasons, he'd shown he could hold his own at the plate, and he looked like at least a decent fourth outfielder.
The Rockies began the season at Miami, where the Marlins started four right-handed pitchers. Blackmon started twice and went 3-for-10 in the series, a prelude to his six-hit game on April 4. Through 40 games as of Thursday, he was hitting .333/.366/.582, with 34 runs scored, 29 RBI and a team-leading eight stolen bases. He already has hit a career-high nine home runs, surpassing his previous high of six.
"I guess you can never see something like this coming," Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. "I think more than anything, I saw a guy that prepares, a guy that works hard, someone that wanted to get better."
Blackmon had shown a sign of his latent power at Baltimore last August, with a majestic home run that soared over the stands in right field, traveling some 394 feet, only the 78th home run ball to reach Eutaw Street since Camden Yards opened in 1992. Blackmon said he has shown more power this year because he has been consistently hitting balls well, the result of getting his front foot down at the proper time for his swing mechanics to flow. "I'm not a guy who has traditional raw power," Blackmon said. "I don't mishit balls and hit them over the fence. I'm only going to hit balls for extra bases when I'm on time, and I make really good contact."
Blackmon can be counted on to make steady contact. He has struck out 15 times this season (through Thursday), just once every 11 trips to the plate. Blackmon doesn't walk often, just seven times this year so far, but putting the ball in play can lead to good things, particularly at Coors Field. He's hitting .414 there with a 1.240 OPS and seven homers, compared to .265 with a .701 OPS on the road, although he's hit his first two road homers of the season on the most recent road trip to Cincinnati.
"It's nice to have a guy who can not only run but can hit a ball in the gap and hit it into the seats," Weiss said. "That's what Charlie's shown the ability to do. That power and speed combo [in a leadoff hitter], everyone wants, but it's tough to find. It's a rare combination. I'm not saying Charlie's going to go out and hit 30 homers, but if you make a mistake, he'll hit it into the seats. It's a weapon at the top of the lineup."
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The Rockies drafted Blackmon in the second round of the 2008 draft out of Georgia Tech. That school didn't recruit Blackmon when he was coming out of North Gwinnett (Ga.) High School as a pitcher, so he went to junior college at Young Harris, in the Georgia town of the same name.
"Charlie made it pretty clear from the very beginning that he was going to be here for two years," Young Harris coach Rick Robinson said. Georgia Tech recruited him after his freshman season, but Blackmon kept his word, returning for a second season at Young Harris. "He was a left-handed pitcher that was successful for us, but he wasn't your high-velocity ACC prospect," Robinson said. "Charlie was more of a finesse guy. He would pitch at 87-88, would touch 89, and you always thought because of his tall and long-armed build that he was going be a 91-92, 93 guy. And he was never able to reach that."
Blackmon got some at-bats as a designated hitter in his second season at Young Harris. He moved on to pitch for Georgia Tech for the 2007 season, but he ended up getting a medical redshirt due to tendinitis in his left (throwing) elbow. Toward the end of that season, Blackmon said, the Georgia Tech pitchers were given the opportunity to take batting practice. Blackmon hit extremely well, and Bobby Moranda, then Georgia Tech's pitching coach and now head coach at Western Carolina University, admired Blackmon's swing and encouraged him to hit in the Texas Collegiate League.
Blackmon played for the Colleyville LoneStars in the summer of 2007, who were managed by former Texas Rangers outfielder Rusty Greer. "I hadn't played outfield since high school," Blackmon said. "I just went out there and told [Greer] I was a two-way player, like a hitter-pitcher kind of guy, which happens in college occasionally. I think he literally thought I was a two-way player, which I hadn't been since high school. I guess in my mind, I was predominantly a pitcher, but I just wanted to have fun. I didn't play that whole season [at Georgia Tech], so I just wanted to get out on the field as much as I could."
Blackmon hit .316 in the Texas Collegiate League, then returned to Georgia Tech to hit .396 for the 2008 season, with eight home runs and 25 stolen bases. The Rockies took him that year in the second round, 72nd overall, and signed him for $563,000. The area scout who signed Blackmon was Alan Matthews, who joined the Rockies scouting staff after they went to the World Series in 2007.
"I don't think there was a ton of conviction in terms of what Charlie was going to be as a professional," said Matthews, "in terms of his tools and the way he played the game, just based on the lack of history that most of the industry had on him as a position player. That was clouded by the fact that he was playing right field, and he was a fourth-year junior. So he's an older guy with really no track record of hitting... And he wasn't even playing center field on a college team, even though he was a legitimate, plus runner."
But based on his conversations with Blackmon, Matthews knew he was extremely confident in his ability, though not cocky, and a very good self-evaluator. "He was not going to be denied by anything anyone else told him or circumstances in the game," Matthews said. "He was going to work and learn as much as he could to be as best as he could, and obviously we've seen what could happen from his mindset."
Blackmon began his professional career in June 2008, two weeks before his 22nd birthday, at short-season Class-A Tri-City. He finished the season with a 23-game hitting streak, and his 98 hits broke the Rockies franchise record for a short-season league, set by Juan Pierre in 1998. Blackmon had a solid season at high Class-A Modesto in 2009, but a nagging hamstring injury kept Blackmon from making his 2010 debut at Double-A Tulsa until May 31.
Over a few successive games with Tulsa, Blackmon found himself striding too far, causing his head to move so much that pitches sped up on him. He was determined to fix matters and thought the only solution would be to put something in front of his foot, to prevent him from striding any further. One night after a game, he saw some stadium workers unloading a truck and asked if they knew if there was a cinder block anywhere. One of the workers drove Blackmon in a cart to get one.
"It was kind of like a symbol of why I'm here -- not to get complacent, and to constantly be trying to move forward with my skills," Blackmon said. "So I kind of made myself carry it around everywhere. I'd carry it to the indoor cage and the outdoor cage and take my five swings and then pick it up and carry it out with me every round. Carry it to the dugout, leave it in the dugout for games and then carry it back to the locker room. I caught a lot of heat for it, obviously."
Blackmon even loaded the cinder block onto the team bus for a couple of road trips, hauling it out for batting practice during games keeping it in the dugout close to the bat rack "so it could hang out with my bats." After about two weeks, Blackmon no longer needed a physical reminder to govern his stride, so he set the block aside. He finished the season hitting .297/.360/.484 in 86 games.
"I try to keep a sense of urgency," Blackmon said after that 2010 season. "I try not to get complacent and understand that I'm in the minor leagues, and that's not where I want to be. I'm capable of doing more. There's always going to be someone better than me, and if they're working just as hard as me, than how am I going to catch up to them?"
Weiss became the Rockies manager after the 2012 season and got his first look at Blackmon last year at spring training. Weiss saw a player with "a lot of intent," someone looking to steal bases and "always trying to impact the game."
Following the 2013 season, Blackmon's focus was on training to run faster, "because I didn't want to be limited to a corner spot in the outfield. I wanted to be qualified speed-wise to play center field." So Blackmon did considerably more running in his offseason conditioning program and was doing full-speed sprints in December, something he typically would do toward the end of January. "Lots of weighted sled pulls, lots of 40-yard sprints," Blackmon said. "I kind of kept track of my 40-yard sprint. I wanted to run under a 4.5 second 40 before I left for spring training. I actually reached that goal a couple weeks early, and I think I'm actually running a little faster now than I was at that time. I feel if the ball hangs up in the air, I can really tell the difference, that I'm able to record more outs as an outfielder than I would have in the past."
As the 2013 season was winding down, Blackmon was playing well on a last-place team that was limping to the finish, riddled with injuries. This year, Blackmon for six sublime weeks has been integral to a resurgent Rockies team. "For me, it's really important to be part of a team that's a winning team," Blackmon said. "That for me means more than batting averages and stuff like that. It's just kind of knowing that people are counting on you, and they have faith in you to get it done."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.