SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies lefty Jeff Francis' stats are close to spotless through his first three Cactus League outings (two starts). He has given up no runs or walks and has almost as many strikeouts (five) as opponents have hits (six).
But Francis, who will start against the Dodgers on Sunday afternoon at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, doesn't exactly see perfection.
"I look more at execution," Francis said. "The results might've been good so far, but there are a few pitches I've gotten away with. Guys have hit a few balls in the air and they've ended up in mitts. I evaluate myself more on the amount I hit the target. There's a lot of improvement I can make there."
This detailed, even-keeled approach to his job is one of the reasons the Rockies look to Francis, 32, as a leader to the many starters vying for jobs who are in the beginning stages of their big league careers. Francis, who was the Rockies' ace during their run to the World Series in 2007, before shoulder injuries put him out of action for part of 2008, all of 2009 and some of 2010, said the role has been an adjustment. Francis pitched for the Royals in 2011 and was in the Minors with the Reds when the Rockies signed him in June to bolster a young and unprepared staff.
"I'm comfortable with it, for sure," Francis said. "It was new to me last year. I'm still learning how to be in that role, but I definitely don't walk around like I know what to do. I learn from everybody, just like they might learn from me. I have a lot of experience, but there are things I'm trying to get better at, things I'm trying to learn."
Francis said his changeup against left-handed hitters and his fastball command need work. Even before the shoulder issues, Francis relied on location more than velocity. He doesn't throw as hard as he used to, so deception and location are at an even higher premium.
"It's a pursuit of consistency," he said. "There are a lot of things that I do well. It's just a matter of executing them consistently, from game to game. It's the ability to spot up my fastball and do that every time. If for some reason I struggle, I'm finding ways to get people out."
Nicasio sees progress despite tough outing
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Rockies right-hander Juan Nicasio had an eventful, but ultimately productive 3 2/3 innings on the mound Saturday against the Angels.
Nicasio fanned Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the first inning and erased Howie Kendrick with a pickoff move. He also gave up three runs in the second, two on Peter Bourjos' triple. Nicasio yielded a prodigious homer to Pujols in the third on a sinker that Nicasio felt was in a good location.
But Nicasio, trying to show he has more weapons than his fastball, saw progress with his slider and his changeup, which made the mixed bag -- four runs on seven hits but three strikeouts against one walk -- an overall positive.
"I'm feeling good with my changeup, and I threw a lot of sliders. I felt good because I didn't hang a lot of those," Nicasio said. "If I can get my slider over the plate more, I'll be OK."
After the Pujols homer, Nicasio reacted with frustration when Josh Hamilton hit a slider hard to deep center, but it stayed in the park.
"I hung the slider, and I thought home run when he hit the ball. He's a good hitter and he's got power," Nicasio said.
Rockies manager Walt Weiss was happy that Nicasio was willing to attack his weaknesses.
"It's such an electric arm," Weiss said. "He's developing command of his secondary stuff. But the life on his fastball gives him some breathing room with his other stuff.
"He threw his fastball to some pretty darn good hitters."
Tulowitzki shines on special weekend
TEMPE, Ariz. -- For the first time in a while, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki cut loose around the bag -- in a jaw-dropping way -- and in the batter's box on Saturday afternoon.
Tulowitzki scorched a double to left off Angels starter Jason Vargas in the top of the second, took a glove-hand flip from diving second baseman DJ LeMahieu, and made a spinning pivot and leaping throw to complete a double play to end the bottom of the second. But Saturday won't be remembered for either of those plays.
Tulowitzki clubbed the first Vargas pitch of his second at-bat over the grassy knoll behind the left-field wall and out of Tempe Diablo Stadium. The big performance and the 8-6 Rockies' victory were part of a special weekend for Tulowitzki, who is hosting 18 patients from Children's Hospital Colorado -- along with their caregivers, doctors and hospital staff -- that he flew down for the weekend.
"That ball went a long way," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "It was a tad up and he got to it. It was firm. It's pretty special, a shortstop doing that."
The performance was a reminder of the player Rockies fans barely saw last year. Tulowitzki suffered an injury to his left groin during the first series of the season and limped along until late May, when he went on the disabled list. He would eventually undergo surgery to remove scar tissue and miss the remainder of the season.
"All signs are good that when we get started [with the regular season], he's going to be rolling," Weiss said. "A lot of the first three weeks for him have been about gaining confidence physically that he can do the things he needs to do, specifically at the position. It's a demanding spot."
Young gives Weiss options with lineup
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Eric Young Jr. is making the idea of starting him as a change-of-pace to the Rockies' lineup look better and better each time manager Walt Weiss tests him in Cactus League play.
Saturday against the Angels, Young easily beat out an infield bouncer to short in his first at-bat, had a solid single to left his second time up and dropped a bunt single in his third at-bat to lift his spring batting average to .474 in seven games.
Young, 27, earned the long look this year by hitting .316 last year, his first full season in the Majors. Part of that success came off the bench, but he was also hot during an extended trial in the starting lineup, before suffering an oblique injury in August that cost him the rest of the year.
"That run I had last year pretty much gave me the self-confidence to believe pretty much what everyone was trying to tell me -- just go play my game, and not worry about impressing everybody else," Young said. "That's putting the ball on the ground, using my legs, trying to hit the ball on the ground and just causing havoc by messing around with the defense."
Young started in center as the Rockies rested Dexter Fowler, but more often Young will start in right and Fowler will play center when Weiss goes to his speed lineup. The Rockies are more likely to use the Young-Fowler combo during road games, when manufacturing runs is at a greater premium than at power hitter-friendly Coors Field.
Like Young, Fowler has speed, but on the basepath, Fowler is less likely to initiate action through steals. Fowler hit a career-high 13 homers last year, and his swing is better suited to hitting into the gaps than placing the ball on the ground and beating it out, the way Young does.
"It gives Walt a lot of options to maybe use me more frequently, maybe use Dex down in the two hole, like we used to do in the Minor Leagues," Young said. "If I get on base, and he hits the ball in the gap, the pitcher's got to worry about either me stealing a base or serving him one up. And if we're both on base and CarGo (Carlos Gonzalez) or Tulo (Troy Tulowitzki) hit, somebody's definitely scoring."
After twisting knee, Helton not with team to face Angels
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies first baseman Todd Helton experienced swelling in his right knee Saturday morning, the result of a twist he suffered during Friday night's game against the Royals, which was called after four innings because of rain.
Helton, 39, underwent surgery last November to have cartilage repaired. It was his second surgery of the year. He had a torn labrum repaired in August and missed the remainder of the season.
Helton was in the trainer's office at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Saturday morning and did not accompany the team to the afternoon game against the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Friday night was Helton's third appearance of Spring Training, although the rainout means he officially has been in two games, and is 1-for-4 with a double and one RBI.
• Robbed of an opportunity to pitch Friday night because of the rain, the Rockies had some of the pitchers scheduled to work in that game throw simulated innings at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Saturday morning. Right-handers Dan Houston, Miguel Batista and Chad Bettis, and lefty Tyler Anderson threw two innings apiece. Righties Josh Sullivan, Manny Corpas, Will Harris and Bobby Cassevah, and lefty Rex Brothers each threw one inning.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.