When Pat Valaika entered the game against the San Diego Padres, his team was already up 12-0 in the seventh inning. The utility player coming off the bench could have put it in cruise control. Nobody would have blamed him. Instead, Valaika hit his first career pinch-hit grand slam.
It’s his fourth pinch-hit homer of the season. When Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado were setting records of their own, Valaika on the low-key made history of his own. The pinch-hit, his 15th of the season is the most by a rookie since 1958. That was the first season with official rookie rules.
Before this record setting night, Valaika is sitting comfortably flipping through his phone with his legs propped up, smiling and looking like the most comfortable guy in the clubhouse. It might help that the section of the clubhouse where he sits, he is surrounded by his teammates he came up through the minor-league system with.
After the September call ups, Valaika’s locker is between Ryan McMahon’s and Mike Tauchman. It is a mini-Albequerque get together on the right-side of the Rockies clubhouse. Having his teammates in the clubhouse is making a difference.
"“It’s awesome. It’s great to see them here. They’re great players. They deserve to be here. It’s been fun going through the system with them. Seeing them reach their goal as well. There’s a certain sense of being comfortable with these guys,” Valaika said."
Valaika mentioned that his teammates are kind of in the same role he is in being a bench player. He said his goal is to help his teammates with their routines to get ready for the game.
"“This is the first year that I haven’t played every day. You just have to be ready for your opportunity. Be prepared to do whatever Bud [Black] asks,” he said."
Tauchman no doubt is feeding off the experience of his locker mate and is preparing with eagerness.
"“It’s great. It makes it a little more comfortable playing with guys that you’ve played with. Just a sense of we came up together we all kind of in this together. We’ve been striving to get here for a long time. Now that were here it’s nice to enjoy it with people that you know went through exactly what you’ve been through,” Tauchman said."
Tauchman’s also been learning from his All-Star teammates who happen to be some of the best outfielders in the game. He refers to Charlie Blackmon as the most mentally and physically prepared player he’s ever been around. With Carlos Gonzalez and Gerardo Parra he looks to their confidence. Their swagger in the batter’s box has not gone unnoticed by Tauchman.
The preparation of his young players has not gone unnoticed by Bud Black. He commended Valaika for contributing all year in a tough pinch-hit role. He likes that McMahon and Tauchman are gaining valuable experience. But for the players that have worked in the minor-leagues this season, he has high praise and think they’ve been integral to the success of this team.
"“When the season starts in April, you know you’re going to dip into your minor league system. Our guys who have come up have contributed in some way or another. I like the fact that when they’ve come up they haven’t been awed by the situation in front of them. They’re gaining valuable experience.”“And they’ve done all that is expected of them. They’ve done it with open ears and a thirst to learn which is awesome. That will bode well for them in the future,” Black said."
With the score 16-0, heading into the 8th, seemingly the whole September roster expansion got into the last two innings of the game including Tauchman and Tom Murphy.
Before the start of this season, Murphy was slated to be the secondary catcher behind Tony Wolters. Injuries derailed that plan and he is back in a familiar role getting called up from Triple-A in September like he has in the past two seasons. But this time feels much different.
"“We’ve always been out of it by the time I get called up,” Murphy said. “So playing time is a little more evenly spread out. We’re winning now. So I still prepare like if I was starting that day.”"
The season that Murphy didn’t plan has taught him a lot.
"“I’ve learned being at the big league level is where it’s at. I don’t ever want to experience a September where you’re just coming up here trying to grind through the month. This has been a great experience to feel the energy of the team and to be playing for something this time of the year. I always want that to be the case.”"
The preparation of these players who don’t play every day is already paying dividends for the Colorado Rockies.