A couple weeks ago, it dawned on Rockies rookie outfielder Sam Hilliard that he had no reason to worry and that he should just enjoy himself. The brighter outlook has resulted in better hitting.
Hilliard began the year starting in left field, but struggled to a .167 batting average through his first 13 games, and playing time was becoming irregular. But David Dahl leaving the lineup with a back injury in August meant Hilliard was one of few options for Colorado.
Baseball became the way it had been for much of Hilliard’s life. Able to count on being in the lineup, he simply remembered to enjoy himself.
Yes, the swing is shorter and there is less unnecessary effort. But the relaxed spirit has had just as much to do with Hilliard’s production -- .325 with five home runs and seven RBIs while appearing in all but one of the Rockies’ last 14 games (and starting 11) going into Saturday night at Dodger Stadium.
“I definitely believe that it's a combination of getting more reps and more opportunities, as well as just really trying to relax,” Hilliard said. “I remember when things started to turn for me at the plate. It was really just a conscious decision that I made to not put so much pressure on myself and remind myself to have fun.
“Daniel Murphy always says, ‘Hey, man. Make sure you’re having fun out there.’ He is a huge believer in that -- it's just a game. Once you stop putting some of the pressure on yourself going out there, it becomes a little bit easier to take those really good pitches that are out of the zone, and to not try and do too much.”
Manager Bud Black said, “Hopefully, that continues throughout his career -- a looseness and freedom to his game, where he’s not all bound up. That happens to a lot of young players. They want to make an impact, and tension gets into their game. It was starting to creep in, but he’s rectified that.”
Hilliard has smiled his way into some interesting trivia. While the Rockies are in a well-documented funk against the Dodgers and at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles is no problem for Hilliard. Hilliard’s fifth-inning solo homer off Dustin May was his fifth is the most of any visiting rookie in Dodger Stadium history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Living a dream
Kevin Pillar said his eighth-inning grand slam, which gave the Rockies a temporary lead in Friday night’s head-shaking 10-6 loss to the Dodgers, was a “top three, four, five” career moment. He grew up in West Hills, Calif., and said he attended “hundreds” of games at Dodger Stadium.
For Rockies from Southern California, the fond memories are mostly from way back, since the Rockies haven’t had much success there since the start of last season. Pillar said that though he is just learning of the Rockies’ struggles, he can fall back on the early part of his career, when his Blue Jays couldn’t win at Yankee Stadium.
But that changed when, after a 42-minute rain delay, the Jays overcame a six-run deficit and beat the Yankees, 12-6, on Aug. 16, 2016. The Jays would eventually make the American League Championship Series.
“I just visually remember being down pretty big, and rain came and we went back to the clubhouse and it was silent in there,” Pillar said. “Maybe people had those thoughts in their head like, ‘We can't beat them here and now a rain delay … just get it over with.’ And then, something happened.
“We came out super aggressive after that rain delay, put some runs across, a couple big home runs put us in a position to win, and the momentum of that one win gave everyone in that room confidence that we could win at that stadium and beat that team. It carried on for a couple years.”
Dahl rejoins Rockies
Dahl, who has not played since April 17, joined the team in Los Angeles and took batting practice at Dodger Stadium, with the hope he can soon be activated.
In other injury news, righty Wade Davis (right shoulder strain) had a bullpen session Saturday that went well, Black said. However, utility man Chris Owings experienced soreness after playing games at the Rockies’ alternate training site, so his return is delayed.
Rockies stand up to cancer
For the fifth consecutive year, MLB and its clubs raised awareness for childhood cancer during all games on Saturday for a special league-wide day in home ballparks. MLB’s “Childhood Cancer Awareness Day,” held during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in collaboration with Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C), combined a visual and ceremonial demonstration of support for the cause with outreach to local hospitals treating young patients in their communities. Childhood cancer is the leading cause of death by disease among children in the United States and Canada.
The Rockies were one of several teams to donate baseball-themed Starlight Hospital Gowns locally. The Rockies’ gowns went to Children’s Hospital Colorado. The Rockies have also provided a trip to Spring Training to Children’s Hospital patients for each of the last seven years.
The Rockies joined all on-field personnel, including players, coaches and umpires around baseball in wearing gold ribbon decals and wristbands during Saturday's game against the Dodgers. Clubs also featured ceremonial activities in ballparks. Club activities included pregame ceremonies, cardboard cutouts of pediatric patients in stands at ballparks, virtual patient first pitches, virtual player hospital visits and more.
Childhood cancer awareness efforts in previous seasons have included special pediatric cancer awareness batting-practice T-shirts, online campaigns to empower fans to hold fundraisers for pediatric cancer research and donations to local children’s hospitals. MLB and its clubs have supported the fight against cancer through a variety of initiatives for many years. As Stand Up To Cancer’s founding donor, Major League Baseball has pledged more than $50 million to SU2C’s collaborative cancer research programs, providing invaluable support. Launched in 2013, the work of the Stand Up To Cancer/St. Baldrick’s Foundation Pediatric Cancer Dream Team has helped to develop new immunotherapy approaches and contributed to the development of two new treatments for difficult-to-treat pediatric leukemias that have been approved by the FDA. MLB has recognized SU2C at its jewel events since the '09 World Series.