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Valaika making strides in oblique recovery

March 14, 2018

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies infielder and pinch-hit specialist Pat Valaika's gray pants were ripped pretty good Wednesday morning. But his left oblique muscle was strong and intact after he appeared in a simulated game in Scottsdale, and that's good news that came sooner than expected.Valaika, who set a Major League

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies infielder and pinch-hit specialist Pat Valaika's gray pants were ripped pretty good Wednesday morning. But his left oblique muscle was strong and intact after he appeared in a simulated game in Scottsdale, and that's good news that came sooner than expected.
Valaika, who set a Major League rookie record (since the rookie rule was adopted in 1958) with 16 pinch-hit RBIs last year, appeared in just three spring games before the injury. With the trickiness of such injuries, his availability for Opening Day has been in question.
By going 1-for-3 (with a hit off lefty setup man Jake McGee, who was doing his work there) and playing third base -- making one pants-ripping fielding play -- in his first action since the injury, Valaika has a realistic possibility of starting the season with the Rockies.
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"Everything felt good, and I had a lot of situations to test it -- a slide, a ball in the hole, running -- it was good," Valaika said.
He smiled about the ripped pants. "Just sliding into second --- hard dirt, I guess," Valaika said.
The right-handed-hitting Valaika plays all four infield positions, and he spent the early part of camp concentrating on his position of least experience, first base. In addition to his bat off the bench (.328, four home runs and 12 extra-base hits in 66 pinch-hit opportunities), Valaika, 25, is valuable because he can play shortstop if Trevor Story needs a day off. If Valaika isn't healthy enough to start the season, the Rockies likely will go with non-roster infielder Daniel Castro.
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Manager Bud Black said he was pleased with the recovery of Valaika, who has an injury that often dictates a slow comeback because of the risk of setbacks. Head athletic trainer Keith Dugger has been reporting that Valaika was making progress, and Black saw for himself.
"We've seen that the last week or so, that he was making great strides," Black said. "I didn't know what to expect this past week. I thought it might take a little bit longer."
Valaika said between Cactus League and Minor League games, he hopes to receive enough at-bats and playing time to feel confident starting the season on March 29 at Arizona.
Gray struggles, but isn't feeling blue
Righty Jon Gray yielded five runs -- all courtesy of Enrique Hernandez's three-run homer in the second and two-run double in the fourth -- on six hits in four innings during Wednesday night's 11-6 loss to the Dodgers. But Gray struck out six and he said his slider, usually his strikeout pitch, was the best it has been since 2016. He went 10-4 with a 3.67 ERA last year in 20 starts, but he didn't feel he had the pitch consistently.
"I took out some positives, some negatives, some stuff to work on during the week," Gray said. "It all comes down to getting ahead of guys. I think I got a first strike out of six of the people I faced tonight, which is pretty bad. Just still finetuning my command.
"But that slider tonight was working. That's a plus to take out of it."

Gray went just 2 1/3 innings in his last outing, and left too many fastballs over the plate -- especially to Hernandez, whom he has never faced in a regular-season game. But as the presumed Opening Day starter (no announcement has been made), Gray isn't worried about being ready.
"If I can just get ahead of guys, that's all I need," he said.
CarGo, and it's gone
On his second day of at-bats since arriving in camp, Carlos Gonzalez homered -- off righty Scott Oberg -- and singled in four at-bats. Gonzalez, who hopes to jump into Major League games as quickly as the Rockies let him, began taking Minor League at-bats Monday, when he went 1-for-3 with a broken-bat single off righty Matt Flemer, who pitched at Triple-A Albuquerque last season.
Third baseman Nolan Arenado went 3-for-5 in a simulated game.

Position competitions
Zachary Rosscup, an out-of-options lefty reliever, gave up a two-run, two-out homer to righty-hitting James Farmer in an eighth inning. Rosscup fanned two and gave up two runs on three hits. Also, lefty Harrison Musgrave recorded all five outs on strikeouts but was pelted for four runs on five hits.
• Righty reliever Jairo Diaz, who spent last season completing a comeback from Tommy John surgery, forced three groundouts in his inning. He hasn't allowed a run and has given up just one hit in five innings this spring.
• Outfielder Raimel Tapia, possibly in line to come off the bench, went 1-for-2 with a game-opening double and two runs scored. Outfielder Mike Tauchman, another bench candidate, went 1-for-2 after entering as a replacement.

• Infielder Brendan Rodgers, the Rockies' No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, hit his third spring homer.

Injury report
Black said it's unlikely righty Jeff Hoffman, who had a 2.25 ERA in two Cactus League games (one start) before suffering right shoulder soreness, will appear again before camp ends, which eliminates him from competition for the Opening Day rotation. Black said Hoffman began playing catch Wednesday.
The Rockies reassigned righty starter Ryan Castellani (8 R, 7 ER in three innings) and righty reliever James Farris (1-0, 3.60 ERA in five games) to Minor League camp. The moves reduced Major League camp to 49 players, including 12 non-roster invitees.
Up next
Lefty Tyler Anderson will start at 2:10 p.m. MT on Thursday against the Angels at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Starting pitching prospects Yency Almonte and Sam Howard, likely to provide depth this season from Triple-A Albuquerque, are scheduled to throw, as are closer Wade Davis and lefty Mike Dunn.

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.