Charlie Blackmon balked at the idea he might get DJ LeMahieu into trouble, dragging his buddy into some adventure on the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean, baseball heroes with two faces, one of them bearded and bushy and the other dry and quiet.
The core of the Rockies’ middle defense, Blackmon in center field and LeMahieu at second base, could not, on the surface, seem further apart in personality. But in their fifth season together, after weathering the dog years of losing baseball in Colorado, they are finally all-stars together on a winning team.
Blackmon was voted by fans as the starting center fielder for the National League in Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic in Miami. LeMahieu was elected as a backup second baseman by a vote of players and managers. They are two of four Rockies selected, along with starting third baseman Nolan Arenado and right-handed closer Greg Holland.
There is a day lingering Wednesday in Miami, a spot in the schedule to fill without baseball. And Blackmon’s mind is racing. He has fished the rivers of the western United States, communed with the animal kingdom, surfed the Pacific and backpacked through Europe. What might Miami offer for fun for Blackmon and LeMahieu? They have followed the same path even on the side of Georgia highways.
“He’s got some crazy ideas about it,” LeMahieu said. “I’m like, ‘Whoa. How about just an off day?’ ”
Their Oscar-and-Felix routine can only go so far.
“If I want to make plans with DJ,” Blackmon said, “I have to call his wife. He’s a busy guy.”
Through just over half this season, Blackmon, now a two-time all-star, has been among the best hitters in baseball, with more hits and total bases than any other player heading into Friday. He is a rare combination of baseball bona fides: a leadoff hitter with power numbers; a prototypical corner outfielder with smarts enough to defend the expanse of Coors Field’s center field and someone with a linebacker-looking frame who can steal bases.
Blackmon ranked first in the National League and second overall among major-league center fielders in home runs (18) and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage, at .937) entering Friday.
“I don’t have to be the best hitter. I just never want to be the worst hitter,” Blackmon said. “If I can be consistent and take away those peaks and valleys, you can have a really good feel for hitting.”
Winning the day
Blackmon’s improvement as an everyday player happened in daily increments. When he debuted for the Rockies in 2011, he was a backup behind Dexter Fowler. He was a backup through 2013 until the Rockies traded Fowler before having to pay him in free agency. Blackmon shot onto the NL all-star team in 2014 with a flashy first month.
In the three years since, Blackmon added facets to his game that did not previously exist on his scouting report. He stole 43 bases in 2015. He hit 29 home runs in 2016. He leads the league in triples this season.
“Charlie has come into his own,” Colorado manager Bud Black said. “Early Charlie was at a (certain) level and he’s taken his game to a really high level. Players should get incrementally better. But Charlie really took off as a talent. He works at it. His daily preparation is really good. It’s not only physical but it’s mental and it’s intellectual, studying pitchers and scouting reports.”
LeMahieu’s trajectory ran parallel. After debuting with the Cubs in 2011 he was traded to Colorado for, among others, third baseman Ian Stewart. He joined a club with established stars in Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton.
He, like Blackmon, learned how to keep improving. His OPS climbed in 2015 and 2016, from .663 to .746 to .911 last year. His rangy defense, which earned him a Gold Glove Award in 2014, propelled LeMahieu onto the all-star team in 2015. But his breakout 2016 season — he won the National League batting title with a .348 average — carried him into a second all-star spot this season, even though a first-month slump dipped his statistics. Heading into Friday he was hitting .306.
“I try to do my thing,” he said. “I try to play the game the right way, do things right. We have a lot of guys like that around this locker room.”
Admired throughout baseball
LeMahieu’s place among the NL all-stars comes with some debate among fans. His spot on the team was earned as a “player’s player.”
“I was on the other side. And I voted for him at some point,” said Black, a former Padres manager. “His ‘beating the other team factor’ will really get you if you’re on the other side. His raw statistics, no. You take every at-bat and the Statcast and the exit velocities and all that, maybe he doesn’t show up. But in the game you need to win, he shows up in that category. He always shows up.”
In the five years since Blackmon rose from the farm and LeMahieu appeared by trade, the Rockies’ odd couple has solidified the core of the roster, along with Arenado, the kind of young players to build around.
But the Rockies can retain Blackmon and LeMahieu in arbitration only through next season, then both will become a free agent. If Fowler’s exit is an indication, time might be running out on Blackmon and LeMahieu playing together.
“They fit really well together. They take care of business as well as anybody,” veteran right fielder Carlos Gonzalez said. “Over the years, they matured a lot. Now they’re two-time all-stars. They are becoming special players, not just in this organization, but in all of baseball.”
Two years running
The Rockies have four all-stars this season, in third baseman Nolan Arenado, closer Greg Holland, center fielder Charlie Blackmon and second baseman DJ LeMahieu. Blackmon and LeMahieu arrived together five seasons ago and their rise over the past two season has put them at the core of Colorado’s roster. How they rank among the National League’s best at their positions since 2016:
NL CENTER FIELDERSPlayer, team … Avg. … OPS … WARCharlie Blackmon, Rockies … .320 … .934 … 6.3Ender Inciarte, Braves … .297 … .745 … 6.0Christian Yelich, Marlins … .289 … .820 … 5.8Marcell Ozuna, Marlins … .285 … .839 … 5.4
NL SECOND BASEMENPlayer, team … Avg. … OPS … WARDaniel Murphy, Nationals … .344 … .979 … 8.0Cesar Hernandez, Phillies … .289 … .756 … 5.4Neil Walker, Mets … .278 … .822 … 5.3DJ LeMahieu, Rockies … .332 … .849 … 4.9
Note: Stats before Friday’s games; OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage); WAR according to Fangraphs.