SAN DIEGO -- Weeks ago, when the Cardinals were still in the early stages of accepting that they wouldn’t be a part of the playoffs for the first time in five years, Nolan Arenado revealed a gauge of his frustration level and offered a glimpse as to how he doesn’t have much patience when it comes to waiting out a rebuilding plan he hopes hits this offseason.
At 32 years old and 11 seasons into his career, Arenado feels a greater urgency to win on baseball’s highest stage than at any point before.
“All I do is think about trying to win and wanting to win,” said Arenado, pointing to his age as a factor in the added pressure he feels. “I think about it all the time, but I’ve also got to be present with where I’m at, and this is where I’m at now. Regardless of whether it’s good or bad, I’m trying to enjoy every minute with these guys because some might not be here next year. Things happen all the time in this game.”
What happened to Arenado on Friday was that his aching back finally got to the point where he was unable to keep pushing himself through this lost season for the Cardinals, who lost 4-2 to the Padres on Friday when starter-turned-reliever Matthew Liberatore surrendered a two-run homer to San Diego’s Manny Machado in the bottom of the eighth inning. Earlier in the day, Arenado -- an eight-time All-Star and a 10-time Gold Glove winner -- was placed on the 10-day injured list, ending his season.
The injury meant that Arenado’s 30+ homer, 100+ RBI streak ended at seven seasons, excluding the 2020 COVID-shortened season. Arenado played well enough to make an eighth All-Star Game, but the worst April of his career and a slow second half left him at 26 home runs and a team-high 93 RBIs.
Arenado did not homer in his final 26 games of the season. After a first half where he hit .283 with 19 home runs, 62 RBIs and an OPS of .850, Arenado’s production dipped to .241 with seven home runs, 31 RBIs and an OPS of .663 in the second half.
The anguish of those struggles was often splashed across Arenado’s face, and manager Oliver Marmol admitted to it being difficult to tell which was bothering Arenado more -- his back or his struggles at the plate.
“He takes things really hard, and he prides himself on that [expectation of success],” Marmol said. “When [Arenado] is limited, it’s obviously not ideal. This is a guy that truly prides himself on being out there every day and that's how he leads. If you want to be good, you play every day, you don't come out of the lineup, prepare a certain way and you answer the bell.”
Marmol knew Arenado’s back pain had reached the intolerable level when the star mentioned to hitting coach Turner Ward during Thursday’s home loss to the Brewers that his back was especially bothering him. Then, surprisingly, Arenado showed up at Marmol’s office door after the game.
“Because of his leadership style, with how he physically feels, it's him making the decision, ‘I can't continue to do this,’” Marmol said. “He leads by: Watch me, I'm going be here every day, I'm going to work my [butt] off, hit early BP and show you that I'm still working on stuff for the young guys to see what it looks like to work even if we're 15 to 20 games out.
“It got to the point where if he doesn't feel like he can continue to do that -- and he was super genuine when he came in -- and he was like, ‘Oli, I don't think I can keep doing it.’ That's meaningful coming from him because he's a guy that in no circumstances ever wants to come out.”
Before going on the injured list, Arenado said he still had plenty of motivation to play hard because he was “representing myself and my family.” He got far too familiar with rebuilding while playing for the Rockies early in his career and he is hopeful that the Cardinals can add enough pitching this winter to be back in the playoff chase this time next season.
“Colorado was different because I didn’t know any better at the time and I just got used to it,” Arenado said recently. “The 2019 season was really tough for me [when the Rockies went 71-91]. But this season has been tough too, because we’ve been out of it since the middle of August.”