Twice as nice: Hilliard shows off his power in 2-HR game

July 11th, 2024

CINCINNATI -- 's reset revealed a power gear on Wednesday night.

Hilliard, who began the year accumulating numbers at Triple-A Albuquerque, but off the Major League roster and seemingly out of the Rockies’ plans, popped his first two home runs of the season in Colorado's 6-5 victory over the Reds at Great American Ball Park.

Hilliard, a Rockies 15th-round Draft pick in 2015 who is in his second Major League stint in purple, smacked a two-run homer in the third inning, and went deep to lead off the fifth for his third career two-homer game, the last one coming on April 24, 2023, with Atlanta. After a 2-for-4 game on Wednesday, Hilliard is hitting a competitive 4-for-15 (.267) since being selected from Albuquerque on June 21.

“That's the goal -- to contribute and help the team find a way to win ballgames,” Hilliard said. “It feels good. I’ve been grinding my butt off for the last couple of years. To come through a little bit there is a really good feeling. Hopefully, I can build off it, gain some momentum and get some more opportunities to keep helping the team win.”

Hilliard’s power helped blazing-hot lefty starter Kyle Freeland, who posted his fourth quality start in as many outings (6 2/3 innings, two runs, eight hits, nine strikeouts) since returning from the IL after nearly a month and a half with a left elbow strain.

Freeland’s return to the top of the Rockies’ rotation was expected, or at least counted upon. No one knew what Hilliard’s contribution would be when the Rockies claimed him from the Orioles during Spring Training for his second stint with the club.

Possessing power but battling the strikeout, Hilliard broke in with the Rockies in 2019, and received on-and-off playing time until being traded to the Braves after the 2022 season. With Atlanta, Hilliard appeared in just 40 games (.236, 3 HR, 6 RBIs), and was claimed during the offseason by the Orioles, who also didn’t have a spot for him on the roster.

Unable to make the Rockies’ Opening Day roster, Hilliard had a solid 65 games at Albuquerque (.288, 14 HR, 44 RBIs), and on May 1, he broke the club’s homer record. He was up to 76 career homers with the Isotopes before the Rockies called him up.

“Stepping away from the organization for a year, being with the Braves and then coming back, I'm so glad I'm with the Rockies,” Hilliard said. “It just feels like home to me. I feel like there’s some unfinished business to take care of here.”

Morsels of playing time have materialized. Regular center fielder Brenton Doyle has been the Rockies’ most consistent hitter lately, but manager Bud Black wants to preserve his legs. That means occasional playing time in center for the left-handed-hitting Hilliard, who also can play the corners capably.

During the Rockies’ last homestand, Hilliard received just six at-bats in seven games, but was ready enough for two hits and two runs scored during that span. He was ready when called Wednesday, as well.

“He’s been around the block,” Black said of Hilliard. “That was a good swing -- the line-drive homer, that was a bullet. He showed us opposite-field power the second at-bat. Sammy is a pro. And coming back to his [original] team -- we drafted him, we raised him -- he still has a lot left.”

Freeland’s standout pitching, with the best curveball of his career, and the hitting throughout -- with Doyle’s eighth-inning RBI single becoming huge -- put the Rockies in position. As often is the case for a struggling club, the Rockies (33-60) teetered. Victor Vodnik had thrown 1 1/3 innings and was given the ninth, but plans changed when the Reds’ Tyler Stephenson hit a leadoff homer.

Lefty Jalen Beeks earned his ninth save, but not before yielding three hits and two runs. Hilliard, pressing to make a play, made an unfruitful throw to third that let the potential tying run advance to second with one out. Beeks worked a Jonathan India sacrifice fly and an Elly De La Cruz grounder to shortstop to end it.

“You're gonna want to go out and make a really good play for the team,” Hilliard said. “You know, it was a little sketchy there at the end, but to come out with a win -- it's huge and, you know, it's just a testament to this team. We never gave up, and we scored a couple of big ones there and [in the] later innings.”