DENVER – Todd Helton looked like he was finished last year. A chronically bad back had robbed the strength from his legs and the pop from his bat.
Instead of driving the ball into the power alleys and trotting around the bases or pulling into second for a stand-up double, the Colorado Rockies' fading first baseman was too often chugging out of the batter's box after dribbling balls back to the pitcher or grounding weakly to the infielders.
Packing up for the winter after the worst season of his career, Helton sounded a lot like a man trying to outrun time. He declared that despite what the fans were thinking, he wasn't contemplating retirement but a resurgence.
After batting a career-worst .256 with eight homers and 37 RBIs in 118 games — a far cry from the star seasons that had come to be expected of him — Helton hit the weight room like he did in his youth and strengthened his core to protect his back.
At age 37, he returned this spring with renewed health, a rebuilt physique and a dogged determination to regain his old form.
With his back better and his legs stronger, Helton is hitting like he used to.
"Seeing him in spring training and knowing how good he was feeling, I knew he was going to have a good year," teammate Troy Tulowitzki said. "You look at our whole lineup, not too many guys have done much. He's been the one constant that's been going good since Day 1. Imagine what it would be like without him? It wouldn't be very pretty."
While the rest of the Rockies have swooned at the plate, Helton's been a steady force, hitting .322 with six homers and 19 RBIs heading into Wednesday night's game at Philadelphia. His .545 slugging percentage was tops on his team and second-best among all NL first basemen, and his three homers against lefties were his most in a season since 2004.
"He's healthy," San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain said. "The past couple of years, he's had some problems with his back and his legs. He just looked different. This year, it looks like he's swinging the bat right."
Helton is reluctant to break down his restoration.
"I am stronger, but there's some mechanical things that I've fixed," he said. "I'm definitely stronger mentally. I think that also plays a big part in it."
Helton will allow that he wondered like many others if he'd ever feel this good or hit this well again.
"I worry every offseason whether I'm going to have a good year the next year," Helton said. "Ever since I've been playing, that's what motivates me to work in the offseason, to try to get better."
Rockies manager Jim Tracy said Helton's health was the key to his turnaround.
"He's able to do a lot of the things physically that he wasn't able to do last year. If you don't have a lower half, it's hard to hit. If you're trying to hit from the waist up, that's hard to do. That's really, really hard to do," Tracy said.
"And as a result of having his legs, he's creating an awful lot more leverage for himself. And when you have leverage, you are now putting yourself in a position to be able to consistently drive the ball and that's what Todd Helton's doing. He's consistently driving the ball, whether it's a right-handed pitcher, a left-handed pitcher.
"He's back to being Todd."
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.
Arnie Stapleton can be reached at http://twitter.com/arniestapleton