It’s not easy to be hotter than the temperatures in Tulsa, Okla., at this time of year.
But Josh Rutledge sure is trying.
The former Cullman High and University of Alabama standout has proven to be the most productive player for the Tulsa Drillers, the Colorado Rockies’ Double-A affiliate, through the first half of the minor league baseball season. Rutledge leads the team and is among the top 10 in the Texas League in nine categories — hits (94), batting average (.305), home runs (10), doubles (22), runs (48), total bases (152), OPS (.833) triples (3) and at-bats (308) — entering tonight’s league All-Star Game. He was one of three Drillers chosen to start the contest, which will be played in front of the Tulsa homecrowd.
“It’s my first All-Star experience in pro ball,” Rutledge said during a phone interview with The Times on Wednesday. “Being able to start is really exciting for me.”
Rutledge, the 2007 Alabama Sports Writers Association’s Class 5A Player of the Year, changed his approach at the plate about this time last season with the Single-A Modesto Nuts, focusing on using more of the middle of the field.
Suffice to say, the adjustment worked.
He at one point pulled off a lengthy 27-game hitting streak before ending the year with a .348 batting average, good for second best in the Rockies’ organization.
That success has carried over into his 2012 campaign, but Rutledge doesn’t have any tweaks to thank for it this time.
“I feel like I’m just being me,” he said. “I’m not putting too much pressure on myself. I’m just going up there and having fun. I know I got the All-Star shortstop, but I’ve been playing some second base, too. I’m doing all I can to help the team win.”
And boy, have they been doing just that.
The Drillers clinched an automatic playoff berth by capturing the Texas League North Division first-half title with a 40-30 record, three games better than the second-place North Arkansas Naturals.
“We played really well as a team through the first half,” Rutledge said. “Everybody is just having a lot more fun. Knowing there is already going to be a postseason spot for us makes it even more enjoyable for everyone.
“In our organization, we’re really big on character. We’re all in it for one thing — to win at all levels. I think you can really tell that more than you can on other teams. It’s awesome.”
The Rockies recently called up Rutledge’s Double-A teammate, Edwar Cabrera, a left-handed pitcher who was scheduled to make his first major league start Wednesday night against the Nationals. Instead of being bitter about a player advancing through the organization before him, Rutledge said he’s genuinely thrilled in situations like Cabrera’s.
“It’s especially exciting to see your teammates do so well and get called up,” he said. “You play so many games with them and everybody becomes close like a family.”
With the All-Star season Rutledge is having, it’s not a stretch to wonder if or when the former Bearcat might be moved up to the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox or the Rockies’ major league ballclub. That’s not information the front office generally shares with its players, but Rutledge is remaining optimistic.
“You can only hope,” he said. “That would be unbelievable and that’s what you work for your whole life.”
What was once merely a childhood dream of playing at the major league level is beginning to look more and more like a clear-cut reality. There’s not a day that goes by where Rutledge doesn’t consider himself lucky just to have the opportunity.
“There aren’t too many people who can say they come out and play professional baseball every day,” he said. “It’s definitely something I don’t take for granted.”
‰ Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at email@example.com.