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Healthy Cuevas shows Isotopes his full hitting potential

Outfielder atones for disappointing 2016 debut with red-hot start to 2017

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Scottsdale Scorpions at Salt River Rafters
Noel Cuevas entered Monday’s game leading the Isotopes in batting average (.364), slugging (.614) and home runs (three).
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Rockies prospect Noel Cuevas was the rare hitter who did not have a great debut as an Albuquerque Isotope.

Last season, the outfielder hit a meager .234/.293/.328 with one home run and eight RBI in 44 games in his first Triple-A stint.

Cuevas has redeemed himself, and then some, in his start to 2017. Entering Monday’s game, Cuevas was hitting a robust .364/.378/.614 with three homers and nine RBI in just 11 games.

“I’m healthy, that’s the main difference,” Cuevas said before a 7-4 loss to the visiting Reno Aces. “I’ve got my legs under me. Last year, I was coming off the hamstring injury. It was more of a test drive. I know I wasn’t at a full 100 percent, especially with my (speed), I couldn’t run the way I normally could. It probably did make me try to compensate in other ways, which is why it took me out of my approach.

“But this year I came back healthy. My legs are under me. I can just focus on playing baseball instead of focusing on are my legs OK, am I going to blow out?”

Manager Glenallen Hill said it goes beyond Cuevas simply being confident in his health.

“I think that it’s more than him just staying healthy,” Hill said. “It’s more his whole learning how to play with a competitive edge. It’s part of his maturation now that’s been inconsistent. He’s learning that he can control that and when he plays with an edge you can see it in his body language when he’s standing in the box and how he walks up to the plate. You can see that he’s up there and he means business.”

Cuevas went 1-for-4 with a run scored on the night, but none of the Isotopes (6-7) did much hitting against Diamondbacks No. 1 prospect Anthony Banda (1-1) and three Reno relievers.

“We faced him back in Reno and I thought we did all right off of him,” Cuevas said of Banda, who the Isotopes touched up for five runs in 5 2 /3 innings last Wednesday. “He’s a guy that likes his fastball, so we go in there knowing that. If he’s going to be attacking, we’ve got to be attacking back. You can’t let him get comfortable. That’s the way we’re going to go out there tonight.”

Banda made the right adjustments and only allowed two runs in 5 2 /3 innings at Albuquerque on Monday.

The Aces’ ace, though, is actually in the minority of pitchers, style-wise, that Cuevas saw last season and so far this year.

“Coming here last year did help,” Cuevas said. “I saw how pitchers love their offspeed here (in the Pacific Coast League). I’ve always been a fastball hitter but I’m slowly learning how to hit breaking pitches. I just came with the confidence that I’m a good fastball and breaking ball hitter. So I just study what they do here and go with my plan up to the plate and so far it’s been working.”

Coming into the year, Cuevas said he knew it would be a constant battle for playing time with five talented outfielders on the roster. So far, he has been able to carve out a regular role for himself, starting 12 of Albuquerque’s 13 games so far. He’s been in right field seven times, a designated hitter four times and started once in center field.

“We know how the business works,” Cuevas said. “We know that everybody here has an opportunity to play in the big leagues. That’s why we’re here. To be honest, I think all of us understand that we’re competing with ourselves. We’re trying to make ourselves the best player possible to help our big-league team at some point. We know everyone here is good. For me, I just try to focus on the becoming the best possible player I can be every day.”

Now it is just a matter of enjoying the comforts of home for the next seven games after a rough road trip, both in terms of the scores and the elements.

“It’s good, especially with the weather down here,” Cuevas said, smiling at the 80 degrees posted on the scoreboard. “It was basically survival mode up in Reno and Tacoma. We knew it was going to be cold and raining. We were really looking forward to coming back home to nice weather and good fans. We feed off of that, we feed off of good atmosphere. Once we get a couple hot bats, it’s contagious. We’ve got a good team, we’ve got a team that can hit and can pitch. It’s going to be a fun ride.”

The Isotopes and Aces meet again today at 6:35 p.m. MT. Lefty Harrison Musgrave (0-0, 5.19 ERA) will take on Reno right-hander Zach Godley (0-1, 4.22).