Amid the excitement created by the impactful night Rockies first baseman Ryan McMahon had in the 6-2 victory against the Phillies on Thursday night at Coors Field, the most insightful moment of all came during McMahon’s post-game media session.
Wearing his traditional smile, glancing at the media crowding up to hear him during the typical clubhouse jubilance, McMahon touched on reality.
In the aftermath unloading a three-run home run on a fastball up in the sixth inning for a 3-0 lead, and clearing the right field scoreboard an inning later with a two-run home run on a fastball that had sunk out of the strike zone for the final margin of victory, McMahon touched on reality.
“This is just one game,” he said with a smile that emphasized he did enjoy the one game. “This is a humbling game. As soon as you think you have it figured out you are screwed, but I am definitely taking what I did tonight and taking some confidence from it.”
And he should. The Rockies second-round draft choice in 2013 out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Ca., McMahon’s name has consistently been mentioned in talk about who the keys for the organization’s long-term success are, but his initial big-league cameos have been more a reality check with just how much a challenge the sport can be than anything else.
An All-Star selection at each of his five stops on his minor-league journey to the big leagues, McMahon had a big-league cameo appearance in September of 2017, managing just three singles in 19 at-bats.
A year ago, he appeared in 91 games spread out over three different stints in the big leagues, and while he became the first player in franchise hit game-winning home runs in the seventh inning or later in back-to-back games against the Dodgers in August, the lack of consistency was underscored by his .232 average in 91 games. Even with the two dramatic blasts against the Dodgers, he hit only five home runs in those 91 games, compiling a .242 average while striking out 64 times in 181 at-bats.
And while he was in the Opening Day lineup at second base this year, the struggles continued. On Thursday, he returned from a 12-day stint on the disabled list because of a sprained left elbow, having only four hits to show for his first 20 at-bats of the season –just one single in the 15 at-bats before being placed on the disabled list.
“I always believed in myself,” he said. “But one of the loneliest feelings is to be the guy going up and not getting that knock to help the team. We are all highly competitive people. We all want to be in that situation and succeed.”
On Thursday night, McMahon was successful
With Opening Day first baseman Daniel Murphy still on the disabled list (broken finger) and right-hander Zach Evelin on the mound for the Phillies, manager Bud Black did not hesitate slotting McMahon into the No. 5 spot in the lineup, playing first base.
McMahon repaid the confidence.
“He had good swings,” said Black. “He had a great return. A great night.”
It was, however, “a night,” something to build on, said McMahon. It didn’t guarantee anything about Friday, much less the rest of the season.
“I have always believed in myself,” he said. “But one of the loneliest feelings is to be the guy going up and not getting that knock to help the team. We are all highly competitive people. We all want to be in that situation and succeed.”
This season doors opened for McMahon to make a claim to a major-league roster spot, even if initially it was at second base, a void created by the free-agent departure of DJ LeMahieu to the Yankees, a position that the Rockies had McMahon learn in addition to third base, his initial position in pro ball, and first base, the first base.
“I didn’t look at it as a pressure,” said McMahon. “I look at it as an opportunity.”
And then came the injury. The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger ran into McMahon’s left arm when McMahon reached up the first base line to catch a throw from Nolan Arenado. The frustration initially flared up.
Quickly, however, McMahon regrouped. He focused his time away from the active roster on regaining the swing he had refined in the off-season, taking advantage of advice from assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar late last season on becoming more focused on pulling the ball instead of settling for an opposite-field approach.
This was, after all, his big chance. The Rockies had lost LeMahieu to free agency, and while they did sign Daniel Murphy to take over at first base with the return of Ian Desmond to center field, McMahon had shown a definite comfort at second base in his conversion to the new position.
At the big-league level a longer swing that he had developed on his way up the baseball ladder from high school through the minor leagues was no longer good enough for McMahon to be as good as he wanted to be. Salazar made the simple adjustment that instead of starting with his hands down, he should raise his hands to their high point, and start from there.
“I was able to hit the ball the other way, but I did not want to use that as a pacifier,” he said. “It was not how I was going to get the best swing off.”
With the suggestions from Salazar to build on, McMahon had a basis to work from in the off-season with Trent Otis, who over the years has worked with McMahon on his hitting approach.
“He broke some things down and helped me connect the dots from what Jeff was saying,” said McMahon.