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Etkin: Swing shift: Tulsa's Tulowitzki takes lead in honing discipline

Published April 17, 2006 at midnight

Troy Tulowitzki is batting leadoff for Class AA Tulsa. Never mind that Tulowitzki, one of the Colorado Rockies' better prospects, is expected to be a run-producing shortstop when he reaches the major leagues.

The seventh player taken overall in the 2005 draft, Tulowitzki, 21, is batting first for the Drillers with an eye toward future gains.

"He's got to be more selective in what he swings at," Rockies assistant general manager Bill Geivett said. "And if we can do something with the lineup and position him in a spot that can help him learn that, then that's what we're going to do. What we're looking at is the major-league level, and (there) he's going to have to be more selective at what he offers at than he is right now."

Indeed, in spring training, members of the Rockies front office joked that if a paper airplane came floating out of the stands toward home plate, Tulowitzki would swing at it.

Tulsa manager Stu Cole was the manager last year at Class A Modesto, where Tulowitzki played 22 games and began his career with 94 at-bats while hitting .266 with four homers and 14 RBI. A strained left quadriceps muscle caused Tulowitzki to miss most of August, and when he returned for the final two games of the regular season and the California League playoffs, Cole put Tulowitzki atop the lineup.

"Early on, he hadn't played for a while (after the draft), so he was trying to get his timing down," Cole said. "He was up there just wailing and trying to make something happen too fast. He was taking better swings at better pitches and got hurt. Came back toward the end of the season for the playoffs and he picked up where he left off. He was swinging the bat well at the end of the season and the playoffs. When he came back from his injury, I led him off to get him some at-bats. He did a pretty good job for us at that spot."

In spring training, Cole bounced the idea of Tulo-witzki batting first this season off player development director Marc Gustafson and Geivett. Tulsa does not have a prototypical leadoff hitter, which made it easier to let Tulowitzki bat there. He did just that during spring training.

After going 3-for-4 with two doubles Sunday, Tulowitzki is batting .311 with no home runs, five RBI, six doubles, one triple and 12 strikeouts in 45 at-bats. Cole said at the outset of the season, Tulowitzki had fallen back into his free-swinging ways but improved after talks last week.

"He was pretty much just free-swinging and swinging at a lot of pitches out of the zone, getting himself into a lot of bad hitting counts," Cole said. "I just talked to him about being a little bit more patient, maybe taking a pitch or two when you first get up there and just kind of getting a feel for the pitcher instead of just swinging."

Gustafson said the Rockies, while trying to enhance Tulowitzki's plate discipline and two-strike approach, "do not want to take away any of his aggressiveness, but we want to bottle it."

After his first at-bat of the game, there is no guarantee Tulowitzki will lead off an inning.

But the batting order won't change, along with Tulo-witzki's inherent duties regardless of when he bats in any inning.

"He's got the middle of the order guys behind him," Geivett said. "Plate discipline and what you swing at is extremely important at the major-league level. For him to become a great hitter like people think he can be, he's going to have to learn to not offer at pitches around (but not in) the zone. This type of role will help him do that and understand that."

Class AAA: Colorado Springs

Left-hander Justin Hampson (1-0, 0.00 earned-run average) took injured Jose Acevedo's spot in the rotation and allowed one hit in six scoreless innings Thursday . . . While working just 6 1/3 innings combined in his two starts, left-hander Zack Parker (0-1, 11.57) has thrown 164 pitches . . . Right fielder Jeff

Baker (.282, 0-11) began the season 1-for-20 but went into Sunday 10-for-19 in his past five games with three doubles and nine RBI . . . The Sky Sox opened the season at Tacoma and Portland and went six games without hitting a home run, a drought that ended after 199 at-bats Wednesday when Juan Melo (.222, 1-7) homered. Two innings later, JD Closser (.265, 1-1) homered and, one inning after that, Carlos Rivera (.324, 1-8) hit a grand slam.

Class AA: Tulsa

Third baseman Ian Stewart (.333, 1-6) has hit safely in eight of nine games. Ten of his 12 hits have been for extra bases, including a Texas League-leading eight doubles, one triple and one homer . . . Closer Jim Nelson (0.00), whose only appearance of the season was one inning April 6, finally was placed on the disabled list Thursday because of a strained left oblique muscle. The closer's duties will largely fall to

Manuel Corpas (1-0, 4.50), who has no walks and nine strikeouts in six innings. Left-hander Steve Colyer (0-0, 8.10) replaced Miller on the roster. After getting cut by the Rockies late in spring training, Colyer, 27, went home for about a week to mull his future, then reported to extended spring training.

Class A: Modesto

Second baseman Corey Wimberly (.154, 0-2) was 1-for-21 overall and 0-for-13 going into Saturday, when he had three infield hits. The switch-hitting Wimberly is exceptionally fast and has just one strikeout in 26 at-bats. He made the jump from Rookie-level Casper, where he won a batting title and hit .381 with 22 RBI and 36 stolen bases, because of a surplus of infielders at Asheville. The Rockies are concerned about Wimberly losing confidence and will monitor his situation closely . . . Neil Wilson made his 2006 debut as a pinch hitter Friday and was scheduled to catch Sunday. He missed the first seven games after developing cellulitis when a cut on his left knee became infected.

Class A: Asheville

Center fielder Dexter Fowler (.364, 3-5) has gone 9-for-18 with three doubles, one triple, three RBI and no strikeouts in his four games before Sunday. The 20-year-old switch-hitter entered Sunday fourth in the South Atlantic League with a .788 slugging percentage . . . While going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, Alan Johnson, a finesse right-hander, has no walks and 16 strikeouts in 12 innings . . . Catcher Nelson Robledo (.231, 0-4) was placed on the disabled list Saturday after getting hit in the right hand with a foul tip. X-rays were negative. Luke Sargent came from extended spring training to fill the spot on the roster.

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