Rockies: Helton’s balky back on the mend this spring
TUCSON, Ariz. ” Todd Helton is weary of chatting about his balky back.
It’s fine, the Colorado Rockies first baseman contends.
No more problems, he laments.
Let’s switch topics, he politely advises.
The state of his back has been a big concern this spring.
Judging by his swing, though, Helton’s well on his way to full recovery. The slugger has a team-high four home runs ” impressive shots all of them.
That’s what happens when you can feel your left leg again.
Helton struggled with a disk problem in his lower back last season, leading to numbness in the leg that robbed him of his ability to dig in and drive pitches.
The numbness he could live with, even play through early in the season.
However, when he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, that’s when his tolerance stopped.
“It felt like someone sticking a knife in your back,” Helton said.
So he went on the disabled list and then on the operating table soon after the season. Dr. Robert Watkins performed the procedure, alleviating the pressure on the nerve.
At first, Helton’s rehab went slow ” too slow for his taste.
“You go through days where you feel good, and then some days where you’re like, ‘I don’t think it worked,'” said Helton, a five-time All-Star who’s played his entire 12-year career in Colorado. “Gradually, the good days become more, the days where you hurt become less. You realize, ‘Hey, it worked.'”
Even in his moodiest of moods, Helton never allowed the thought that he might be finished to cross his mind.
Not him. No way. Not his style.
“I didn’t lose an ounce of sleep over it,” the 35-year-old said. “I wasn’t going to worry about it.”
Helton is a career .325 hitter who possesses a magnetic glove that has dug many an errant throw out of the dirt.
That’s what made last season so irritating for him. Helton struggled at the plate, hitting just .264 in 83 games, and wasn’t himself in the field.
The pain was worse than he ever let on.
“There was nothing dull about it,” he said. “There’s a difference between pain and being injured. You can play with pain. Every baseball player does it, everybody in life does it. But being injured you can’t get out of bed in the morning. It affects everything that you do, every aspect of your life. That’s where I was last year.”
He hasn’t resembled that player this spring. Not in the slightest.
He’s moving well around the bases and flashing solid range in the field. He also appears dialed in at the plate, hitting .348.
“You’d never have guessed he even had back surgery,” infielder Clint Barmes said. “He looks great.”
Still, the Rockies have been taking it easy with Helton, not wanting to push him too much this early. He recently played seven innings in the field in two straight games, his back holding up just fine.
However, inquire about the demands of playing back-to-back days on his healing back and he’ll roll his eyes in a good-natured way.
“It’s not like I’m getting 25 carries as a running back,” he said. “I play first base. If I can go seven, I can go nine.”
Helton won’t deny there was some doubt early on in camp.
Would the pain return if he uncoiled a swing? Could the back hold up?
Those were quickly silenced.
“Every game I play, (the doubt) goes away,” Helton said. “It’s been a good spring, a fairly easy spring for me. They’ve done a really good job of letting me get some days off and have some recovery days. That’s helped out a lot.”
What’s more, Helton is spraying the ball to all portions of the field, even showing his customary pop in the process. That tells Rockies manager Clint Hurdle all he needs to know about Helton’s health.
“He’s seen a variety of pitches ” hard, soft, in, out ” and he’s taking good swipes at them,” Hurdle said. “He’s barreling balls up … It’s a real good sign.”
A hardy Helton in the field would be a good sign to Aaron Cook, who’s come to count on the reliable hands of the three-time Gold Glove winner.
“You know he’s going to get to everything, at least knock it down,” said Cook, who’s penciled in as the Rockies’ Opening Day starter. “I think people are starting to see this spring his back is not hurting him. He’s starting to swing with no pain.”
Just don’t make a fuss over Helton’s well-being.
He’s tired of talking about the back, insisting it’s no longer an issue.
“I’m not surprised where I’m at,” he said. “I wish I felt a little bit better some days, but other than that, I feel good. It’s good to be back out there playing.”