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Cuddyer's year a testament to toughness

Rockies veteran in position to win National League batting title

DENVER -- Michael Cuddyer wishes he had a step-by-step formula guaranteed to produce unprecedented excellence.

Before this year, Cuddyer, a Rockies outfielder and first baseman, was known for his versatility and professionalism -- traits any team would love to have in a player, but not the stuff of stardom. But this year, Cuddyer, dirty uniform and all, is in the spotlight.

Heading into the final games of the season, starting with Tuesday's opener of a two-game set with the Red Sox to end the home schedule, Cuddyer leads the National League in batting with a .334 average. Second is the Braves' Chris Johnson, at .327 after Monday's matchup with the Brewers.

And the hits do damage. Cuddyer has 20 home runs, 82 RBIs and 53 extra-base hits. Not only that, but he represented Colorado in the All-Star Game alongside more celebrated teammates Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. During All-Star festivities, Cuddyer was a surprise entrant in the Home Run Derby, yet he made the second round and hit 15 total round-trippers.

All this from a player who entered this season with a .271 career batting average and hit .260 while battling injuries -- especially a right oblique injury that cost him the final two months -- and playing just 101 games last year with the Rockies.

"I wish there was an easy answer," Cuddyer said. "I prepared the same way. I did find a routine in Spring Training, a tee-work routine, and I've stuck with it. But 60 points above your career average, I don't know if a tee routine is the answer."

Cuddyer's strong season is more a testament to toughness than it is to any special hitting strategy. In May, a bulging disk in his neck cost him 14 games. On June 6, Cuddyer tumbled after colliding with an opponent while trying to beat out a grounder at the end of a 12-inning loss to the Padres, suffered bruised ribs and missed five games. In August, a flu-like illness that went through his family cost him two games and six pounds.

Finally, on Wednesday, Cuddyer landed badly on his left wrist and suffered a right forearm contusion while making a diving catch in right field. Even with Colorado last in the NL West, Cuddyer took a cortisone shot on Friday, returned to the lineup Sunday -- and went 3-for-5 with an RBI.

It's not the first time Cuddyer has won respect throughout the game for his toughness. He played the first 11 seasons of his career in Minnesota, and was part of six postseason trips.

First-year manager Walt Weiss is happy some notice is coming Cuddyer's way.

"He's had a phenomenal season," Weiss said. "If you look at his season, he's chasing a batting title, was in the All-Star Game -- it's been a magical year for Cuddy.

"I think it's a combination of his skill set, his determination and his wisdom. Sometimes guys, they gain a lot of wisdom but by the time they get all the wisdom, their skills have diminished. With 'Cuddy,' his skills are intact as well as the intelligence."

Cuddyer took his consistency to a new level when he put together a club-record 27-game hit streak May 28-June 30. The run was the longest in the Majors this season until the Nationals' Denard Span eclipsed it last week.

"I've done a really good job of focusing just on that at-bat," Cuddyer said. "I look back now and I'm like, 'Man, it's almost 500 at-bats and I don't remember it like that.' In seasons past, it's like, 'Geez, I've had 500 at-bats.' I've done a good job of staying in the now, staying in the present."

Next season -- the last of a three-year, $31.5 million contract -- Cuddyer will be counted on more then ever for his leadership. With longtime first baseman Todd Helton retiring at the end of this season, Cuddyer not only most likely will replace him at first, but he'll also slide into Helton's slot as the most experienced everyday player.

It won't change Cuddyer's approach.

Cuddyer is low-key and friendly around the clubhouse, and he is known to lighten the mood during Spring Training with the card tricks that are his hobby. But he is never the center of attention, and during the season, he spends little time at his locker and much more preparing, either in the batting cage or receiving treatment for the various bumps and bruises. At Coors Field, the card tricks play on the scoreboard, but Cuddyer is not pulling any tricks or shortcuts when it comes to his craft.

"You hope young guys take note and have it in them to go about their business the right way," Cuddyer said. "It's more than the way you are out on the field. It's treating people the right way, with professionalism."

Cuddyer hopes that by this time next year, the focus will be on the Rockies' trying to make the playoffs, rather than a player's batting-title chase. He believes Colorado's chances of competing this year took a serious hit because of injuries to Tulowitzki, Gonzalez, center fielder Dexter Fowler and closer Rafael Betancourt, but he thinks the club has the leadership in place to contend.

"This year, we're still playing the game hard," Cuddyer said. "You still try to do things you believe in. Just because the results aren't there, you've still got to go out there and do what you believe is the right thing to do. You've got to find what that recipe is. Just because two foods don't taste good together don't mean those foods aren't good on their own."

The Rockies' record leaves a bad taste, but Cuddyer is savoring his season.

"Last year, I didn't get to play at all in August and September," Cuddyer said. "To be healthy is great. You've got four months in a row off after that."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.

Colorado Rockies, Michael Cuddyer