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Day by day, Helton remaining productive

Day by day, Helton remaining productive

Day by day, Helton remaining productive play video for Day by day, Helton remaining productive
DENVER -- Rockies first baseman Todd Helton had reason to be in a good mood on Sunday morning.

His name was on the lineup card. He was doing some gentle stretching and feeling nothing bad. The sound system in the Coors Field home clubhouse was blaring "All I Need to Know" from his favorite country singer, Kenny Chesney.

Then again, Helton also had reason to be grumpy. While his often troublesome back didn't feel bad, it didn't exactly loosen up during an earlier batting practice. And a couple of nights earlier, Helton swatted what he knew should have been a double, but his legs allowed him only a single.

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But as long as Helton's back will let him play, he is simply thankful. Certainly, the power that helped make him a five-time All-Star has been erased by years of back issues. After a sore back and weak legs last season saddled Helton with the worst numbers of his career, the 37-year-old can't take any measure of health for granted.

"Everybody likes to fight Father Time a little bit," Helton said. "Obviously, that's part of the battle as you get older, working within what you're given on that day. So I don't know. That's part of the fun of it, part of the challenge, too."

Given his encouraging 2011 statistics -- a .333 batting average, four doubles, a home run, eight RBIs and a .389 on-base percentage while starting 11 and appearing in 16 of the Rockies' 18 games -- Helton's day-by-day approach is working.

Father Time always wins, eventually. But successes in the battle are often historic. During Wednesday afternoon's 10-2 victory over the Giants, Helton contributed his 531st career double. He ranks 31st all-time and is three behind Lou Gehrig.

Other than a brief bout with tightness, brought on when he slipped while warming up on a wet field in Pittsburgh, Helton has shown no sign of the problems that could halt his climb on all-time lists and stop him from contributing to a Rockies team that enters Friday's series opener against the Marlins with a National League-best 13-5 record.

"I feel like I've got a chance when I step up to the plate, which is a good feeling," Helton said. "I'm seeing the ball well.

"I never look in the future. I worry about today. You never know -- not only in baseball, but in life -- what tomorrow will hold. You can wake up and [have] something not feel right. I just enjoy today and focus on doing my best today, playing as hard as I can. We've got good enough guys behind me to where if something happens when I play as hard as I can today, and if I can't go tomorrow, they can get me."

Helton's role is an important one. He bats behind shortstop and cleanup man Troy Tulowitzki. His production means that opponents can't avoid Tulowitzki. Helton's production so far has helped offset the slower-than-expected start of outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who bats ahead of Tulowitzki.

Helton's last two .300-plus seasons, 2007 and '09, were playoff years for the Rockies. It's one reason manager Jim Tracy, by spelling Helton periodically, is Helton's ally as he tries to remain productive.

"No question, he's in a really, really good place, and a lot of what he's doing resembles what we saw in 2009," Tracy said. "You don't want to grind on him. You want to keep him fresh so the possibility of what we're seeing is more than likely going to continue over the long haul. We've got ourselves a really nice piece."

Rockies hitting coach Carney Lansford is happy to see Helton's smile return.

Lansford was the hitting coach at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2007, but he and several members of that staff finished the year with the big club. Lansford threw to Helton in the batting cage behind the dugout and had a close look at what made Helton successful.

But when Lansford was hired by the Rockies over the winter, he looked at video and saw that Helton's swing was displaying "some funky stuff I couldn't believe." The beginning of Spring Training wasn't much better, but Lansford told the Rockies' staff to be patient.

Lansford had seen what Helton was going through before.

"Reggie Jackson -- we played together the last year of his career," Lansford said. "There were days when he was really frustrated. Those guys have such high standards, way higher than anybody else. They want to hit every ball perfect.

"Most guys in batting practice, if they miss-hit a ball, that happens. If Todd miss-hits a ball in batting practice, he's not happy with himself. He's that hard on himself. I just laugh at it. I'm like, 'Dude, I don't expect you to hit it hard every time.' He'll say, 'What did I do?' I'd say, 'You miss-hit a ball. It's batting practice. You miss-hit one. If you do it consistently, then we have something we've got to work on.'"

Lansford said that after correcting Helton's swing by taking much of the unnecessary body work out of it and depending on his hands and coordination, "Todd is being Todd."

Rockies right fielder Seth Smith sees a familiar swing from Helton.

"I noticed in Spring Training last year, maybe even the year before, his swing seemed forced, not comfortable," Smith said. "What I noticed this spring and into the season is he seems comfortable. He's giving good swings and great at-bats. That's what you expect from Todd, and that's what he's going to give you."

And, Lansford said, he's a delightful guy. "It's nice to be around him and see him laughing, having a good time around the batting cage, instead of some of those looks when you're struggling," Lansford said. "That's not fun. I hope he's smiling and laughing all season.

"All good players are that way, all great players. What's a good day to a lot of people, to them is an average day. For Todd to get two hits, probably he wants four. Most guys would go, 'I got two hits. That's a good day.' For guys like Todd, that's not enough. That's what makes them great."

There are times when Helton will fight tooth-and-nail. But he also knows ... well, much like the song that was playing as he spoke:

"With a little luck, this old truck will get me home today,

With a little more, I'll still have this job tomorrow."

"I can drive the ball in the gap, get some extra-base hits. But the other night, I hit a ball that should've been a double, but sometimes my legs don't respond. It ended up being a single. I got to second.

"In today's BP, I wasn't feeling it," Helton said. "But that's not to say I'm not going to loosen up and have a good game. But right now, mentally, it may be one of those days where I take what my body gives me. I'm not going to try to do something that I'm not able to do physically.

"But there are days when I feel like I can hit the ball as far as I want."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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