Helton's Chase for .400

Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER (AP) — Todd Helton made his extraordinary breakthrough during just another afternoon in the batting cage.

After practice for a game in Montreal, Helton left the mesh-covered cage and looked at hitting instructor Clint Hurdle with wide-eyed amazement.

``This is a kid I've worked with for six years, and he hit balls that day I had never seen him hit before,'' Hurdle said. ``When he got done, he looked at me like, `What was that?' I said, `Let's just see if we found something. The league will let us know.'''

Since that day in late April when all the mechanics of Helton's swing finally jelled, pitchers around the National League have scrambled to come up with a successful response.

Helton entered the final weekend of August hitting a major league-leading .393 with 31 homers and 110 RBIs. He reached .400 during a home game against the Atlanta Braves on Monday, and his pursuit of the elusive barrier has created a national stir.

Not since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941 has anyone reached the .400 mark. After Cal Ripken replaced Lou Gehrig as baseball's Iron Man in 1995 and Mark McGwire passed Roger Maris as the single-season home run king in 1998, anything seems possible.

``To see Ripken do what he did, to see Mac do what he did and now to see the .400 barrier go down in our era, I think it would be a neat thing for us,'' Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine said.

``It's the kind of thing that you really haven't seen too many people make a serious run at. When somebody finally does, it's hard to take it too, too seriously because you figure things are going to start leveling off. But it seems like Todd's gotten even hotter.''

After Helton hit a modest .328 in June and July, his average dipped to .371 and talk of .400 was limited to Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who was at .400 on July 20. The two reversed roles in August, with Helton using a 42-for-82 stretch to put himself in position for a historic September.

``Those are Little League numbers,'' Hurdle said. ``One of the things about an elite hitter is when they do start to spiral out of control, they have the ability to recover quicker than other guys. I could do the 1-for-30 thing when I played. These guys, it's 2-for-13 and boom, something clicks.''

Talking statistics is taboo around Helton, who prefers to focus on his mechanics and studious approach to opposing pitchers.

Although congenial and polite, Helton scowled at the mention of .400 during Colorado's recent six-game homestand in which he hit .346 and his average dropped 3 points. A cardboard sign above his locker after one game said: ``No more questions about .400.''

``It's like a guy going up for his last at-bat and he's got to hit a home run for the cycle,'' Helton said. ``You don't walk up and say, `Hey, hit a home run here. You need it for the cycle.'''

Some critics argue that even if Helton hits .400 for the season, the average should have an asterisk attached to it. He plays half of his games in the thin, mountain air of Coors Field, a hitting haven from the day it opened in 1995.

Helton had a .425 home average, but was .360 on the road going into the weekend series in Pittsburgh.

``It is unfortunate that this Coors Field factor has surfaced,'' Rockies manager Buddy Bell said.

``Ted Williams is probably the greatest hitter of all time. There is no asterisk by his name because he hit at Fenway Park, and there is no asterisk by Wade Boggs' name because he has 3,000 hits. These guys hit the ball damn hard consistently. And George Brett, they don't have an asterisk by his name because he hit on Astroturf his whole career. You've got to be able to perform.''

Even Glavine, a pitcher who's favorite activity in Colorado is boarding the charter plane home, said Helton should be lauded without qualification if he hits .400. Braves shortstop Walt Weiss agreed.

``I don't care where you're hitting. You can be playing in Williamsport and it's going to be tough to hit .400 against major league pitching,'' said Weiss, referring to the home in Pennsylvania of the Little League World Series.

Weiss, who played briefly with Helton on the Rockies in 1997, said watching him spurred flashbacks to Brett, who was hitting .400 as late as Sept. 4, 1980, before finishing at .390.

Tony Gwynn was at .394 when the players strike hit on Aug. 12, 1994. No such labor dispute stands in Helton's way, but the Atlanta pitching staff does. The Rockies conclude their season with a three-game series against the Braves in Atlanta.

``It could make for an interesting situation,'' Glavine said. ``Hopefully, if he does come in with a chance to hit .400, we'll have wrapped up our division and won't have to worry about giving up hits to him.''

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