ST. LOUIS -- When Nolan Arenado reflected on a 2021 season when his average dipped to .255, the Cardinals third baseman concluded that his bat was lagging on fastballs and his hands were out of place, and he knew he had to do something about it.
Even after hitting 34 home runs and driving in 105 runs in his first season in St. Louis -- numbers most Major Leaguers would love -- Arenado obsessed over his bat speed, swing path and basically every aspect of hitting. His final analysis was that he needed to retool his swing, reposition his hands and work until he could show the same sort of quickness at the plate that he regularly displays at third base, defensively.
“There’s no doubt I’m thinking about hitting all the time. I probably need to stop doing that,” Arenado said sheepishly.
Arenado’s offseason of hitting work is already paying dividends for a Cardinals squad that thumped the Pirates, 6-2, at Busch Stadium on Saturday to improve to 2-0. Arenado was the driving force in the St. Louis offense by going 4-for-4 and tying a career best with three doubles. He also drove in three runs to give him five for the season, tying for the team lead.
Arenado’s technical adjustments to ensure that his hands are quicker showed in the fifth inning when he turned on a 98.1 mph fastball from Pittsburgh’s Roansy Contreras and drilled it down the left-field line for a double. That was the moment the All-Star third baseman saw firsthand that his adjustments would aid him against even the hardest throwing pitchers.
“What I’ve been working on showed up the first two days, which is a good feeling,” said Arenado, who is 5-for-8 with a home run and three doubles in two games this season. “I feel pretty good, but today, I got a little lucky. I hit that one ball to left on a 98 mph fastball, and I feel like last year, I was having trouble with the fastballs.
“So, it’s great to see that adjustment [helped] against a guy who has a good arm. It’s only two games, but it’s a great sign, and I feel like I’m getting my swing off. I feel like I can build off this.”
The Cardinals feel they can build off the adversity they had to overcome early on Saturday. The team found out 45 minutes before the first pitch that rookie manager Oliver Marmol had the flu, and staff doctors advised him to not manage from the bench. Marmol tested negative for COVID-19, and the Cardinals are hopeful the game’s youngest manager will be back in the dugout on Sunday.
Skip Schumaker moved over from his normal role as bench coach to manager, and he had to charter the club through a rocky first inning that saw Miles Mikolas labor through 42 pitches. Mikolas surrendered hits to the first three batters, but he limited the damage to one run to regain control. Limiting the Pirates to one early run felt like a victory, Schumaker said.
“Once it got into 40 pitches, that’s when we started talking about making a move,” Schumaker said of his conversations with veteran pitching coach Mike Maddux regarding Mikolas. “Really, the game was won that inning because of only letting in one run. It could have gotten out of hand, and getting through that inning with one run across helped us stay in it and end up winning it.”
From there, Arenado practically did the rest to single-handedly wreck the Pirates. In the first inning, he pounced on starter Mitch Keller’s 79.3 mph curveball to lace a double between Ke’Bryan Hayes and third base to plate Dylan Carlson. Then, in the third, Arenado singled on an 88.3 mph slider, blooping the ball to right field to drive in Paul Goldschmidt. Following his double in the fifth -- a 98.1 mph fastball he turned on -- Arenado doubled again in the sixth inning to right field to once again push across Goldschmidt.
Of the Cardinals’ six runs on Saturday, Arenado drove in three and scored two himself. Schumaker, a Southern Californian like Arenado, wasn’t shocked at all that the 10-year veteran worked most of the offseason on his swing -- even after posting solid numbers last season.
“I’ve known Nolan for a long time now, and I think he works on his swing every minute of every day,” Schumaker said. “It’s not really surprising he’s constantly making adjustments. You’re talking about one of the best players to ever play the position, and he’s trying to get better. When your best players are your hardest workers, it makes things easy, and between him and [Goldschmidt], it’s fun to watch.”