MIAMI — During daily workouts throughout the offseason in Southern California, Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar would marvel at the intensity and the obsessive/compulsive nature of Nolan Arenado and his pursuit of greatness — even though he was coming off a season in which he hit 34 home runs and drove in 105 runs.
“He was pissed,” Nootbaar said bluntly, referring to Arenado’s reflection on his first season with the Cardinals. “He wanted to hit the ball harder and get his hands faster. The guy is an obsessive athlete. He’s obsessed, and he cares. To see success early for him, it’s awesome, because he wasn’t happy with [last] season — which would have been a career year for others. It’s a testament to how he works.”
Greatness took shape in the form of Arenado staying focused despite striking out in his first three at-bats on Wednesday before homering in the top of the ninth against Marlins closer Anthony Bender. Arenado’s fifth home run and 10th extra-base hit broke a scoreless tie and lifted the Cardinals to a 2-0 victory over the Marlins.
For Arenado, his early-season success has been confirmation of the relentless ways he worked over the winter. Appalled that pitchers were able to get fastballs by him, Arenado worked to lower his hands and make them quicker to balls in the zone. That obsessive work paid off in a big way on Wednesday, when he yanked Bender’s 98.5 mph fastball some 379 feet — and just beyond the glove of Marlins left fielder Jorge Soler.
“Whenever you see results fairly quick, it’s a great feeling,” said Arenado, who hit the seventh home run of his career in the ninth inning or later. “It lets you know the work you put in was mostly right. I’m just trying to stay there. After those three K’s, I knew my swing’s not bad — I’m just getting beat.”
Arenado’s home run, combined with the pitching of starter Miles Mikolas, rookie reliever Andre Pallante, setup man Genesis Cabrera and closer Giovanny Gallegos, allowed Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina to notch the 150th entire shutout of his 19-year career. That moved him into second place all time, one ahead of Gary Carter. Yogi Berra has the most shutouts, with 173.
Arenado came into this series as one of the hottest hitters in baseball, leading the league in batting average (.433), slugging percentage (1.000), OPS (1.514), doubles (five), extra-base hits (nine) and total bases (30). However, his hot stretch and his eight-game hitting streak came to an end on Tuesday when he went 0-for-4. Then, he opened Wednesday with three straight strikeouts against Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara.
For Arenado, whose father is Cuban and grew up in Miami, it was a continuation of a bizarre run of bad luck while playing in South Florida. However, when he broke out of his mini-slump with the home run, Arenado immediately pointed to his 10 family members in the sparse crowd of 8,655.
“I’ve got a lot of family in Miami. My dad was born in Cuba, and I have a lot of family out here in Miami and Hialeah,” he said. “But every time I come here, I don’t play well. I always point to my family when they come, but I was happy to point to them because I finally gave them something to enjoy, because I usually don’t play well here.”
Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said he gained a new appreciation for the all-around greatness of Arenado when he got to watch the nine-time Gold Glover perform over 162 games last season. What Arenado is doing now — after an offseason of obsessive work to improve — is “what greatness looks like,” Marmol said earlier in the season.
“We’re seeing an amazing player right now,” Marmol marveled. “He’s one of the best players in baseball and being able to watch it every day is a heck of a lot of fun.”
Nootbaar — who bounced a foul ball off his earlobe in Wednesday’s game — said he issued a pointed challenge to Arenado in February when they were working on hitting on a daily basis. Nootbaar considers it an honor just to be in the presence of Arenado, but he challenged the star third baseman to go out and win the NL’s MVP Award this season. So far, Arenado is on the path to doing just that for the 7-3 Cardinals.
“He’s a generational player and, in my book, he’s already the best third baseman of all time,” Nootbaar said. “I told him this offseason that I wanted him to win MVP. Obviously, he’s not thinking about that and he’s thinking about team success. But, in my book, I want him to get that MVP. I know how hard he works, and he deserves it.”