Helton gearing up for long season

PEORIA, Ariz. -- If nothing else, Todd Helton's Cactus League debut on Sunday showed the veteran first baseman that even in his 18th spring with the Rockies, the game of baseball can still surprise him.

"I thought going into the game I was going to feel really good, but in the game, it sped up a little more than I thought," Helton said. "It's just a matter now of slowing it back down and taking that BP swing into a game."

The moment was seven months in the making, a moment Helton wasn't sure would come when he underwent season-ending right hip surgery early last August.

"[I started hitting] real early, probably late November," Helton said. "I usually don't start until January, but I wanted to see if I could still swing it a little bit. I think it was probably the third or fourth time that I hit, I was really excited about getting my swing back and felt it was there. It's a work in progress, but we'll see."

In two at-bats, Helton popped to third and grounded to short, but the five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner knows that despite his timing being off, he's on track to be ready for the opener in Milwaukee.

"You want to be peaking when you're breaking camp, not two weeks before camp," Helton said. "I'm trying to train to get ready for the season, not for Spring Training."

With the World Baseball Classic prompting a longer spring schedule, manager Walt Weiss arranged for Helton to delay his debut until the second weekend of Cactus League play.

"The plan is for Todd to play a lot [in the regular season]," Weiss said. "He doesn't need a ton of [spring] at-bats. He's got a pretty good feel for what he needs when it comes to Spring Training."

His eight-day delay may have been the best practice Helton could get as he faces the reality of putting old habits aside, and for a player with nine seasons playing 150 or more games under his belt, learning to be comfortable sitting could be his biggest challenge.

"I feel lazy when I don't go out there," Helton said. "But when you take a day off, it's just amazing how well your body feels the next day."

It's a coming-to-terms that many athletes of Helton's stature aren't ever able to accept. Helton brings a career .320 average into the season and is only a season removed from hitting .302 in 124 games, but his lingering hip issue contributed to a career low .238 in just 69 games in 2012. He indicated he has every intention of hitting .300 again as he prepares for a season knowing "the end is near," and he is more realistic than ever about the pacing.

"My bat speed's still there," Helton said. "It's not there every day. If I'm sore, I don't have youth on my side to be able to get loose. But on certain days, yeah. In BP today I was hitting the ball farther and farther. I hit a ball out to center [for a batting practice home run]."