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Rutledge eager to continue evolution as ballplayer

Rockies infielder endured sophomore slump in 2013, but dwelling on strong finish

DENVER -- This time last year, Rockies infielder Josh Rutledge didn't believe in the sophomore slump. But after losing his starting second-base job and spending significant time in the Minors, Rutledge says, "I do now."

Rutledge hit .274 with eight home runs in 73 games as a rookie in 2012 after being called up in July to replace injured shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. But last year, eventual Rockies Wilson Defensive Player of the Year DJ LeMahieu had taken the keystone job by late May. Rutledge finished with a .235 average in just 88 Major League games, and he played 38 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs.

But an offseason during which he healed from a sore left wrist and plantar fasciitis in his left foot -- as well as time to think through his struggles -- has Rutledge refreshed for a 2014 reboot. He is also ready to build on a strong finish to '13, as he batted .328 with a .381 on-base percentage over 21 September games.

"For as slow a start as I had, I had that good a finish, so I don't look at the average or things like that," Rutledge said. "I know that the numbers were not what they were before, but I don't think I necessarily had a terrible year.

"I definitely got a lot out of last year. I made a bunch of adjustments, and I could tell they worked. I started swinging well at the end of the year. I look forward to adding to that this year. I'm ready to go."

The transition from shortstop to second also proved rough early for Rutledge, but he said he felt better late in the year. With LeMahieu coming off a second straight year in which he finished as the starter at second, it is expected the two will compete for at-bats during Spring Training. Rutledge is keeping his thoughts on continuing his finish to last year.

"Every player that goes into camp wants to make the team, first, win a job and they want to start, but you can't put pressure on yourself for that," said Rutledge, who plans to arrive at the team's Spring Training complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Friday -- a week before the club's official report date. "It doesn't change anything about how you play the game. Whatever they decide is what happens. You don't put excess pressure on yourself."

Besides, Rutledge learned from carrying excess thoughts into last season, even though he was being counted on as a starter.

Some games last spring were good, but there were those games when his swing felt lost. Rutledge went into the regular season unable to make quick adjustments. Through May 20, Rutledge was hitting .242 with a .298 on-base percentage, and he was low on the learning curve at second base. On May 22, the Rockies issued Rutledge the first of two demotions to Colorado Springs.

The moves proved beneficial. Colorado Springs manager Glenallen Hill had been the Rockies' first-base coach in 2012, which meant he had a clear vantage point of the right-handed-hitting Rutledge's swing.

"He came up to me and told me when I was hitting well, my hands were lower," Rutledge said. "I started to feel better after that. Glenallen helped me a lot, and gave me at-bats and a chance to have success. It's different for everybody, but keeping my hands lower keeps me loose and allows me to have solid swings. Before that, I wasn't putting good swings on balls, and I couldn't figure out why."

To squeeze the most out of his ability, Rutledge has to be able to find his swing quicker during the inevitable outages that come during a long season. He also must fight through the wrist and foot pain, which comes when he slides often and are also results of the wear and tear of daily baseball.

Rockies manager Walt Weiss said earlier this offseason that LeMahieu earned the right to go into Spring Training as the starter. With LeMahieu penciled in, Rutledge is in position to spell LeMahieu and Tulowitzki on occasion. Charlie Culberson, who was pressed into outfield duty last year but is a natural infielder, and non-roster invitee Paul Janish, who has played a combined 431 games over six seasons with the Reds and Braves, also are competing for at-bats.

Weiss said Rutledge has the ability to make himself impossible to ignore.

"We still feel really good about him," Weiss said. "He's got a power/speed combo that you don't see very often on the middle of the infield. He was learning a new position last year, which made it even tougher on him. But he's a very talented athlete that is getting better as a baseball player. He's another guy that could play a very big role for us."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.
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