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January 4, 2012

MLB: Moving on up

Former Cullman shortstop projected to be on Rockies’ Double-A roster

CULLMAN — It’s not like Josh Rutledge needed to make a change.

The former Cullman All-State shortstop finished the first half with Single-A Modesto this last season with a decent .262 batting average, 18 RBIs and six stolen bases.

But for the second-year professional looking to make his way up the ranks of the Colorado Rockies’ farm system and chase his dream of playing at the major league level, that just wasn’t enough.

So he did something about it.

“I used the All-Star break to think about how the first half went and what I was doing differently than what I’ve done in the past,” said Rutledge, who played for Alabama between graduating as a Bearcat and being drafted by Colorado. “In the second half, I focused on using the middle of the field, trying to hit everything right back up the middle. I went back to that approach and stayed with it.”

And it worked.

If Rutledge’s first-half performance was considered decent, then the second would best be described as unbelievable, as the shortstop nearly doubled and tripled all the stats he had compiled in every major category up to that point. The shortstop hit .411 the rest of the way, piling on 109 hits, 60 runs, 26 doubles, seven triples, all nine of his home runs, 53 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.

At one point during the stretch, Rutledge managed to pull off a 27-game hitting streak — a Nuts’ team record — helping him end the year with a .348 batting average, the second best in the Rockies’ organization. He snagged the California League’s Player of the Week honors twice and earned a spot on the league’s first-team Postseason All-Star squad.

Now that he has a full season under his belt — Rutledge was only able to play in 11 games his first year with the Single-A Tri-City Dust Devils because of a wrist injury — him playing at baseball’s highest level is beginning to look like more of a reality than a dream.

Rutledge is projected to start next season with the Double-A Tulsa Drillers, and he said there have been discussions about him getting some playing time at second base because Colorado already has All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki signed long-term in Denver.

“It’s all about really good timing,” Rutledge said. “Wherever they put me, I’m just going to try and play my game and continue to help the team win. Hopefully they’ll see how hard I work and maybe that will pay off sooner than later.”

If that’s to be the case, the shortstop has to continue to work hard during the offseason to improve his strength and cardio conditioning, as well as his everyday baseball duties like fielding and batting.

That hasn’t been a problem for Rutledge, who has been in Cullman for the holidays the last three or four weeks, thus far. While in town, he’s been using the Bearcats’ weight room to stay in shape and has gotten help from the school’s coaching staff any time he’s asked.

“The gym that they built is top of the line,” said the shortstop, who was the ASWA’s Class 5A Player of the Year in 2007 while leading Cullman to its first state championship since 2002. “Some colleges don’t even have the equipment they have in there.

“They still help me whenever I need it. I’ll call coach (Brent) Patterson, and he’ll come up and hit me ground balls. He’s always wanting me to get better just because he wants to see me succeed. It’s a blessing because I don’t know how many coaches would do that this many years past (graduation).”

As a player making his way through the lower levels of the minor leagues, Rutledge has had to deal with a small number of off days throughout the season, relatively low pay and long, boring bus rides for away games. He said players don’t get the chance to fly from location to location until they the Triple-A level and higher.

“You just kind of get used to it,” he said.

Despite those few unfortunate circumstances that arise from playing professional baseball for a living, Rutledge isn’t about to complain.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t work out, you develop so many relationships and make so many friends in the minor leagues. It’s just fun to be around all those guys and chase your dream.”

As far as flying goes, it’s likely to be Rutledge’s method of transportation to away games in the very near future — but not just to Triple-A Colorado Springs. No, if the shortstop has his way, he’ll be touching down in the Mile High city to play for the Purple and Black before long.

Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at robk@cullmantimes.com.

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