Hilliard looks to build after last-season push for Rockies

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              Colorado Rockies' Sam Hilliard advances to second on a wild pitch during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Colorado’s Sam Hilliard homered on the day of his promotion to the major leagues in late August. By the end of the season he had seven homers, including one apiece off NL All-Stars Hyun-Jin Ryu and Josh Hader and two off Noah Syndergaard.

“I like what Sam did in September against some good names.,” Colorado manager Bud Black said.

The 26-year-old Hilliard hit .273 with a .649 OPS in 27 games last season with 13 extra-base hits, 13 RBIs and two stolen bases in 87 plate appearances. He played almost every day after his Aug. 27 promotion, seeing time at all three outfield spots.

He had batted ..262 with 29 doubles, 35 homers and 101 RBIs at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he made the Pacific Coast League All-Star team.

“It was a dream come true to make the big leagues,” Hilliard said. “To be able to get a good amount of playing time and be able to contribute and have a little bit success was a tremendous confidence boost. That made me feel like I belong up here.”

Hilliard said the feeling was generated less by his power and more by the quality of at-bats.

“Home runs or not, if I’m able to barrel up some balls and have productive at-bats get on base and drive people, that was what was key for me. And when that sort of happened, it made me feel really confident,” Hilliard said.

Hilliard, 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds, also has speed: 24 stolen bases in five minor league seasons, including 22 in 126 games at Albuquerque last season.

Hilliard made 11 starts in center field for the Rockies, who had an opening after David Dahl’s season-ending ankle injury on Aug. 3.

Dahl and right fielder Charlie Blackmon return as outfield starters this season, and Ian Desmond and Raimel Tapia also are candidates for playing time. Infielder Garrett Hampson also has shown an ability slide play outfield.

A 15th-round pick in the 2015 amateur draft, the left-handed-hitting Hilliard had pinch-hit, opposite-field homer off the left-handed Hader with two outs in the ninth inning on Sept. 28, tying a game against Milwaukee in a 10-innings Rockies win.

Hilliard walked and scored the winning run on a wild pitch in the 13th inning of a 4-3 victory the next day, the final game of the regular season.

Hilliard said he prepared for his at-bat against Hader by dialing up the indoor pitching machine to top level. Hader’s fastball averaged 95.9 mph last season, according to FanGraphs.

“I wanted to simulate the type of pitch he throws and turn up the spin rate and the velocity, and it took me several swings to even hit one fair,” Hilliard said. “I kind of felt like I had already faced when I got into the box.”