DENVER -- For the headlining player on a team fashioning a stellar start to the season, third baseman Nolan Arenado was an agitated-looking fellow Monday afternoon, some four hours before the Rockies’ 7-6 victory over the Giants at Coors Field.
Dig in right foot, step left foot, punch right hand. Arenado did that little dance with intent. He stepped into the batter’s box, took some swings. Then he switched bats, took some more. Switched back, took more. He’d look at cell phone video with hitting coach Dave Magadan and then swing some more.
Arenado popped up more than he’d like, but a few rang off those left-field bleachers. Finally, after one last homer, he collected his bats and left, determined to break out after a .226 average and no homers to start 2020. Manager Bud Black relayed prophetic words.
“I told Nolan just moments ago,” Black said during his pregame press conference, “there are a lot of pitchers that are going to have to pay for this. And it could happen tonight."
In the sixth inning, Arenado exacted payback against Giants starter Johnny Cueto. Arenado’s two-run shot -- his first homer in 69 at-bats, dating to last Sept. 20 against the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, and the 228th of his career to break a tie for fourth on the club list with Carlos Gonzalez -- chased Cueto and sparked a five-run inning that turned the game around.
The Giants entered the inning leading, 4-1. So Arenado is officially on the homer board, and the 2020 Rockies’ 7-2 start is tied for best in club history with the 1995, ’97, 2011 and ’15 teams.
Shortstop Trevor Story, who is off to a much better start than his fellow infielder, showed up early and swung between Arenado’s swings. But it was Arenado who needed it.
“I haven’t felt right at all this year,” Arenado said after the game, still pantomiming the weight distribution and top-hand path. “I was working on getting back and staying on my back leg. That was it, focusing on getting on my back leg and driving off it, those little keys that I need, those reminders. It was really good to be out there.
“It was really good to get out there, just me and ‘Sto.’ It felt good to really work and get after it.”
If you’re wondering, Arenado went deep with the same black-barreled ash bat that he swung for his final batting practice homer.
“It was just ash,” Arenado said. “I’ve been messing around with maple and ash. Whatever felt good today, that was the bat I was going to use. They all felt pretty good, but the ash was the one, and luckily enough it worked out.”
A hairy ninth inning nearly turned to ashes for the Rockies.
It turned out another first homer of the year, from Chris Owings in the eighth off Shaun Anderson, was every bit as important. Jairo Díaz earned his second save, but not until after giving up two runs on two hits and a misplay from second baseman Ryan McMahon in the ninth. The tying run was at third when Díaz induced a flyout by Alex Dickerson.
After Rockies heart rates returned to normal, they could celebrate the late arrival of their star player’s bat.
It’s actually not unusual. Last year, Arenado didn’t homer until the 16th game -- against the Giants, oddly enough, and lefty Derek Holland. But in a 60-game regular season, nine games was more than too long for him.
“I was happy that we were winning,” Arenado said. “Obviously, I’d heard a lot about struggling, but if we were losing a lot, I’d blame myself for most of it. But these guys have been picking me up. It’s just great team baseball right now. These pitchers have done a great job and the hitters have picked me up.
“I want to play my part and do my job. I felt I haven’t done a great job of that. Today was a good step in the right direction.”
Black said the home run was the result of a patient approach that held even during the dry spell. In the first inning, Cueto grabbed a strike with a 3-0 breaking ball -- “a sign of respect” Black said -- before Arenado lined to right. Arenado accepted his fourth walk of the season next time up.
In the fourth inning, after home runs by Chadwick Tromp, Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski had given the Giants a three-run lead, Arenado took a curve low -- since the whole point of the pregame dance was to allow him stay “stacked” on his back leg to have more time to see those pitches -- swung over a curve and then jumped on a 1-1 high fastball to announce his arrival.
“It was just a matter of time,” Black said.