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Rockies catcher Dustin Garneau relishing time with big league club

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Dustin Garneau, as an injury replacement for Tom Murphy, is using his defensive prowess to help hold down the fort for the 9-5 Rockies.

DENVER—Colorado Rockies catcher Dustin Garneau is thankful for his spot on the club’s big league roster. He also knows it might not have happened if not for an injury to his teammate and good friend Tom Murphy.

“Murph and I have been working together every year for four or five years now,” Garneau recollected prior to the Rockies’ home opener earlier this month. “It's a friendship; it's not really a working relationship.”

The situation presents a unique dynamic. Two friends who spent the better part of spring training battling for the same roster spot. And the one who ended up with the spot, Garneau, certainly isn’t playing like a guy who wants to lose it any time soon.

That doesn’t mean he’s thrilled with the circumstances.

“It was awful,” Garneau said of Murphy’s forearm fracture that put him on the disabled list to start the season. “It was a freak thing that happened and it freaking sucks. Last year he started the year on the DL too with an [injured] oblique, so I feel for the guy, man.“

“I'm not going to sit here and say I'm glad it happened,” Garneau continued. “It's horrible. It's a part of the game, but it's a sucky part.”

Regardless of his personal feelings about the situation, Garneau has handled himself like a pro while sharing time behind the plate with Tony Wolters. The Rockies have ridden the National League’s second-best bullpen (58 ERA-, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers) and an improved, but still inconsistent, starting rotation to a major league-leading nine wins in the season’s first two weeks. One underrated part of the early result has been the team’s defense behind the plate; Garneau and Wolters have combined for the most defensive runs above average in baseball, per Fangraphs.

“[Garneau] works hard and calls a great game,” Murphy said of his friend. “I’m so happy for him and how he’s playing. He deserves to be here.”

That was evident in the Rockies’ 2017 home debut, when Garneau—with a steady presence behind the plate and a big home run at it—helped guide rookie pitcher Kyle Freeland to his first career win.

“‘G’ was great,” Freeland said of Garneau following that game. “He helped me stay calm on the mound and keep my focus and poise out there. And that home run was a deciding factor in the game.”

Garneau’s bat has since cooled; the 29-year-old backstop is hitting just .182/.250/.409 for the season. But getting fairly consistent playing time and seeing big league pitchers more regularly should help Garneau iron out some of those kinks. The foundation already seems to be there; Garneau’s relatively high slugging percentage in the early going is backed by a hard-hit ball rate of 45.5 percent, well above the major league average of 31.2 percent.

“I found something out the last couple years at Triple-A working with [Albuquerque manager Glenallen] Hill,” Garneau explained. “I can swing a little bit harder and drive the ball a little bit more, and be to where I'm not just trying to place the ball.”

And the process, Garneau feels, is going according to plan, even if the results aren’t there yet. He’s meeting the overall goal he set out to accomplish offensively.

“I'm a little more comfortable, and that's all I'm trying to be at the plate,” Garneau said. “My hitting coaches now are just letting me hit and be the hitter that I can be and want to be, and being comfortable at the plate helps me do that.”

Even with his defensive prowess, Garneau is likely going to have to hit a little more than he has to this point to have a chance at sticking once Murphy returns. When asked whether the Rockies would consider carrying three catchers if or when that happens, manager Bud Black was pretty firm with his answer.

“That’s gonna be a great decision to have,” Black said. “But probably not — but maybe. But probably not.”

Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich seemed a little more open minded.

“Athletically, Tony Wolters can do more that just catch, so conceivably the answer is ‘yes,’” Bridich said. “But that would force us to change how we look at our catching corps right now. We haven’t put a whole lot of thought into that.”

None of that matters much to Garneau. He’s concerned with continuing to help guide the young pitching staff and do his part to ensure the usual early season optimism surrounding the Rockies doesn’t wear off this time around.

“I'm not playing GM. That's not my job,” Garneau said. “I'll let Bud [Black] and all of them figure that out when it gets there. But while I'm here, I'll keep trying to force their hand to keep me here.”