'I want to keep the guys rolling': Nootbaar returns as Cards claim set

July 9th, 2024

WASHINGTON -- So troubled by his five stints on the injured list over the past 1 1/2 seasons due to a variety of what he dubbed to be “freak injuries,” Cardinals outfielder went off on his own recently and sought the kind of full-body scan that might finally give him some much-needed peace of mind.

Nootbaar’s questions to the technician conducting the DEXA scan on his body’s bone density was one of a joking nature, but also one of great concern because of the rash of injuries that brought a nagging start-and-stop rhythm to his young MLB career.

“Are my bones made of bone? What’s the deal here?” Nootbaar -- who returned to the Cardinals' lineup for their 6-0 win over Washington at Nationals Park on Monday -- asked before the procedure that measures bone density by passing two X-ray beams of different energies through the body.

Injuries to his thumb, lower back, groin, ribs and oblique muscle since the start of the 2023 season left Nootbaar at a loss for answers and in search of a test that might show that his body is sound enough to hold up over the course of a long season. When Nootbaar passed the test, it gave him the confidence that he could attack his Minor League rehab assignment and hustle his way back into the Cardinals' starting lineup.

“Everything came back great, which was good, and I was happy about that,” said Nootbaar, who had one of his team’s 11 hits in Monday's series-clinching win. “They said my bones are very strong, but when you are running into things, [injuries] are part of it. It’s a microcosm of life, and things aren’t always going to go great.”

Things have gone anything but great so far this season for Nootbaar, who played in just his 40th game after fracturing two ribs following a wall collision in Spring Training and an oblique strain on a check swing on May 29. But the blossoming power hitter’s return brought even more length and firepower to a club that took three of four against the Nationals and went 5-2 on the road trip.

On Monday, Paul Goldschmidt and Alec Burleson had homers and Brendan Donovan had two hits to extend his on-base streak to 21 games, tying Bryce Harper for MLB’s longest active streak. As for Nootbaar, he laced a 105.7 mph single back up the middle to calm some nerves that caught him off guard in his first game back.

“It felt good to be back, but ... I did [have extra nerves] coming into the day; I have butterflies before every game, but this one especially,” said Nootbaar, who played seven games with Double-A Springfield in a rehab assignment to get his swing MLB-ready. “Once you get in the box and make a play in the field, [the nerves] kind of go away. It’s a really good feeling being back.”

In recent weeks, the Cardinals have gotten catcher Willson Contreras and Nootbaar back, a pair of important additions to a squad that has gone 33-18 since May 12 -- the National League’s best mark and second only to the Guardians' 32-16 run over that span. In those 51 contests, the Cardinals have gone from nine games under .500 to a season-best six games clear of .500, cutting a nine-game deficit in half in the fight with the Brewers for the top spot in the NL Central.

“When you dig yourself a hole, it takes a ton physically and emotionally for that clubhouse to get out of it and get to where we are right now,” said manager Oliver Marmol. “We’re not close to being done. I told you they were convicted in what the goal was leaving spring. We’re taking it one game at a time, but they’re doing a nice job.”

The Cardinals -- who have won 12 of their past 17 games -- believe that adding Nootbaar to the mix will only make their lineup more potent in the weeks and months ahead. For that to happen, of course, Nootbaar must avoid the kind of “fluke” injuries that have befallen him since the start of last season.

On Monday, he vowed to play the game as he always has, refusing to dial things back to possibly prevent injuries. Most of all, he’s just hoping for a run of good luck where he stays healthy for an extended period.

“Hopefully I can finish this first half strong, go into the break and then have some success in the second half,” Nootbaar said. “I want to keep the guys rolling. I’m just happy to be back up here and I want to stay up here, obviously, with good health the rest of the way.”