Carlos Gonzalez's rising star has Rockies slugger flirting with Triple Crown

A little more than a year ago, Carlos Gonzalez looked like he needed more seasoning in Triple-A. Now, he's a contender for the Triple Crown.

"I would say that's rapid development," Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy said.

Gonzalez's remarkable 2½-week tear has put the Rockies back into the thick of the pennant race and placed him squarely in the hunt to become the first hitter to lead his league in homers, RBIs and batting average since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.

No NL player has done it since St. Louis' Joe Medwick in 1937.

Heading into action Thursday, the man his teammates have dubbed "CarGo" was the NL leader in batting average (.340) and RBIs (100) and his 32 homers trailed leader Albert Pujols by four.

During a career-best 16-game hitting streak that began Aug. 23, Gonzalez's graceful swing has been on full display with a 32-for-62 streak that includes nine doubles, two triples, seven homers and 21 RBIs as he's packed 25 points onto his batting average.

He's put up these numbers despite batting leadoff for 44 games earlier this season. Since moving into the third spot in the batting order in June 22, Gonzalez is batting .377 and since that date he leads the National League in hits, batting average, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage.

"When you talk about what's been done already and what's looming out there on the horizon, it's a little scary to think about how talented this guy is," Tracy said. "This guy's a very, very special player. He makes a strong argument he's the best player in the league when you add it all up."

If he doesn't win the Triple Crown, how about Most Valuable Player?

The 24-year-old slugger flashes solid credentials regardless of where the Rockies finish. He's the only player in the National League with a slugging percentage above .600 and he recently became just the 12th player since 1952 to collect extra-base hits in 10 consecutive games.

It's not just his bat that's turning heads, either.

He's swiped 23 bases. He roams all three outfield spots at cavernous Coors Field as if he's been playing each position his entire career, routinely making terrific catches at the wall and nailing runners with one of the best arms in baseball. He's made just one error all season.

"He's capable of doing anything," Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez said. "He can play defense, he can run and steal some bases, throw runners out. He can do it all."

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker sees not a single weakness in Gonzalez's game.

"He's a real tough out, he's got a great swing. He's going to hit the ball all over the ballpark," Baker said. "You really don't know where to play him. He has the ability to hit all kinds of pitches. He's a heck of a ballplayer."

Before the All-Star break in 2009, Tracy was dealing with questions about why he was stubbornly sticking with Gonzalez in the lineup.

Sure, he was showing occasional flashes of brilliance as he had in the Arizona and Oakland farm systems and with the Athletics in 2008, when he hit 22 doubles before joining the Rockies in the no-longer-debated Matt Holliday trade, but his lack of discipline at the plate was making it easy on pitchers.

Things began to click right after the break last season and he finished with a .284 average with 13 homers and 29 RBIs in 89 games.

Then, he went wild in the playoffs, collecting 10 hits in 17 at-bats against the Philadelphia Phillies in the division series. Remarkably, nine of those hits came off lefties.

He's on the same kind of roll now.

"He absolutely loves this time of the year," Tracy said. "This guy rises. He goes to another level."

Cleanup hitter Troy Tulowitzki, who provides protection for Gonzalez to see some better pitches than he would otherwise, said Gonzalez is sporting a swagger that's only helping him get better.

"The confidence oozes out of him," Tulowitzki said. "I think that's the biggest difference in him from last year to this year is the confidence. That's huge. If you can walk up there with a swagger and know that you're a special player, that's going help you a lot in the field. And that's what he does each and every day."

Gonzalez said his playoff performance made him realize how good he could be.

"That totally changed my mentality, my preparation and everything because maybe I wasn't trying that hard before and now I'm trying really hard because during the playoffs, that was special and that was something that I wanted to win so bad and I wanted to be really good," Gonzalez told The Associated Press.

"My whole mentality and preparation were really good. So, I carried that into the season, and that's why I've been doing so good."

Gonzalez has heeded Tracy's instructions to shrink his strike zone this season, forcing pitchers to elevate their offerings.

Now that Tulowitzki has found his power stroke after returning from a broken wrist that sidelined him for six weeks, the Rockies sport one of the league's best 1-2 punches in 3-4 spots in the order.

"I always let him know that the reason he's having such a big year is because his protection's there," Tulowitzki said, only half-jokingly.

"It's true," Gonzalez said. "Well, Tulowitzki was out for like a month and I was doing pretty well then, too."