Rockies leaning on youth down the stretch

Key at-bats could go to Cuevas, Murphy, Valaika in September

September 2nd, 2018

SAN DIEGO -- The Rockies stayed off the waiver wire and are trusting young right-handed hitters -- all of whom have had ups and downs -- to help the roster in September.

Key at-bats could wind up going to outfielder , catcher Tom Murphy and infielder , who were called up when rosters expanded Saturday. While it's a misnomer to say the bench is totally inexperienced, since manager Bud Black's lineup rotation could leave , or (on a few occasions) at his disposal, the Rockies clearly aren't afraid to call on less-experienced players.

Valaika has the most experience of the group. His 16 pinch-hit RBIs last season were a Major League rookie record (since 1958), although this year he has a .150 batting average with two home runs and four RBIs, and has endured three send-downs to Triple-A Albuquerque. Cuevas (.243, 2 HR, 8 RBIs) and Murphy (.227, 2 HR, 11 RBIs) each have seen part-time duty in the Majors, then have been returned to Albuquerque either because at-bats were few or slumps grew.

But now they will be asked to make a difference in games.

Valaika, 25, had some big moments last season. His pinch-hit grand slam at San Diego last Sept. 16 helped a successful run to the postseason, and his near-miss on a foul ball could have turned last year's 11-8 Wild Card loss to the D-backs. But starting with an oblique injury in Spring Training, Valaika hasn't gained traction this year.

Valaika batted .250 with three home runs in his last 11 games at Albuquerque, and hopes to have corrected his hitting approach.

"Personally, it's been a tough year but I'm still here, and my only goal is to help the team win in any way I can -- I don't care what role it is," said Valaika, valuable because he is the most-trusted shortstop on the roster behind . "In general I need to have better at-bats."

Cuevas, 26, debuted April 22 after a lengthy Minor League apprenticeship and went 7-for-24 (.292) as a pinch-hitter. But he went 1-for-16 with three strikeouts and two walks in his final nine games before being sent down for regular playing time. He hit .330 with seven doubles, three homers and 16 RBIs in his final 28 games at Albuquerque.

"I focused on making sure I had my rhythm back at the plate, and I knew I was going to get the consistent at-bats playing basically every day," Cuevas said. "I focused on my approach and made sure I could feel what I was doing, so I could understand what my body should feel like in order to keep my rhythm."

Murphy, 27, started eight of his final 11 games before being sent down Aug. 6. But he struck out 20 times, and had some difficult games handling pitches -- especially in key situations. However, with Chris Iannetta, Tony Wolters and newly acquired catcher on the squad, it's possible Murphy will be called on in pinch-hitting situations.

"I really tried to put myself in a better position to see the ball better and, hopefully, put together better at-bats," Murphy said. "That's what I wasn't doing here. It was my goal down in Triple-A, and I pressed a little bit [.149, 18 strikeouts in 14 games].

"Sometimes, visually, I get my eyes too far away from the plate, so I really worked on my posture to make sure I was in position to see the ball consistently."

The challenge for all three -- and, presumably, others who will be called up this week once Minor League seasons are complete -- is to demonstrate that they can be a part of winning team, even if they don't have a huge amount of experience.

"Pressure always comes from inside," Murphy said. "We can either choose to listen to that type of rhetoric, or make our own statement, which is what our team wants us to to."

Pennant race baseball

The rest of the Rockies' schedule brings challenges and opportunities. They'll play 10 of their final 17 regular season games at home, with a pair of home-road exchanges with the Dodgers and D-backs, who entered Sunday tied atop the National League West and a half game ahead of the Rockies.

While much of the final month is within the division, the Rockies finish outside the West -- a seven-game stretch, four against the Phillies and three against the Nationals.

Black said he's not opposed to the unbalanced schedule, which is designed for games within the division toward the end, but says it may be worth looking at a change.

"I haven't thought about it a lot, but I think maybe the balanced schedule might be something to talk about, because of the Wild Card," Black said. "That's something maybe we should discuss as an industry."