Rockies' bats break out in series finale

August 21st, 2020

DENVER -- No one knows for sure if three slumps ended Thursday afternoon. But star third baseman Nolan Arenado, second-year regular Ryan McMahon and rookie Sam Hilliard all had significant offensive contributions.

All that was missing from these stories of stress and struggle leading to rewards reaped was the happy ending, for the dog days of this strange summer once again bit the Rockies at Coors Field. Germán Márquez, who saw most of his previous outings dampened by meager run support, gave up 10 runs in five innings, and the Rockies fell to the Astros, 10-8.

Arenado’s homer and double on a 2-for-5 day in which he finally hit multiple balls on the nose fell unheralded. The fifth two-homer game of McMahon’s career -- plus two walks to show that he is seeing the ball well and not just running into it -- went uncelebrated. The 4-for-5 with a triple for Hilliard -- whose early season slump left him not having fun and not playing regularly -- went down as a footnote to the team’s inability to halt a skid of nine losses in the last 11 games.

And the 2020 season that is in one sense a dash (60 games with few days off) and in another a trudge (60 games with few days off) marches on, with the Rockies headed to Dodger Stadium, to face a team that persistently leads the National League West, followed by four against the D-backs.

Still, Arenado, McMahon and Hilliard can at least take solace in good days. They can’t relax, since there’s no way of knowing if it’s just a good game or a breakout. The choice of what to do going forward, keep grinding or sit and percolate, is unanswerable.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do,” said Arenado, whose early batting practice sessions with hitting coach Dave Magadan showing cellphone video between rounds can be interpreted as testaments to hard work. “We have only like [35 games] left. Not a lot.

“I just have a hard time going home not trying to figure it out.”

Let’s look at this trio:

Will increased mph bring up the average?
For much of the season, Arenado was connecting just under the sweet spot. Wednesday’s 13-6 loss brought three maddening rollovers. But here’s what he did Thursday:

He produced a 106-mph exit velocity on his line-drive homer to left off Astros starter Cristian Javier.

His double off Brooks Raley in the two-run fifth screamed at 104 mph.

There was a solid eighth-inning liner, and manager Bud Black said even his popup into short right in the sixth was a 2-0 fastball that he “just missed.”

Arenado's body language in practice and games has screamed that the push from his legs (especially the back leg) is key to balance that allows him to read pitch location and spin.

“Today was just a good day,” said Arenado, hitting a sub-Arenado .234. “I’ve been working real hard to find it. It hasn’t been coming as consistently as I want. I felt I had good at-bats, saw the ball a lot better. I’ve just got to try to carry it on.”

It’s a start
For his struggles with average (.225) and strikeouts (33 in 80 at-bats), McMahon is on the heels of Arenado and Trevor Story (seven) for the team lead in home runs with five. So going deep and actually feeling good at the plate can’t be equated. But his overall day, with the walks and the aggressiveness, made Thursday a positive.

“I’m working in the right direction,” McMahon said. “When things get hard, I don’t think you can guarantee a breakout or anything like that, but I like the way I’m working and the direction I’m heading.”

Thursday ended a series of two in Houston and two in Denver, and a plane ride awaited. There isn’t a day off until Sept. 3. McMahon knows there may come a time when more work isn’t the answer.

“I think we’re hitting it pretty hard,” McMahon said. “That might be something we look into in the next couple weeks, maybe take a step back, listen to our body.

“Right now, these games are really important. We’re trying to do everything we can to figure our stuff out as quickly as we can.”

Put the ball in play, and enjoy it
Hilliard opened the season starting in left field, but he entered Thursday batting .167, meaning he wasn’t playing much. After hitting .273 with seven homers in 27 games during his debut last season, he was expected to provide youthful power. But opponents read cyberspace clippings, too. Before Thursday, he had struck out 17 times in 36 at-bats.

Thursday’s plan came from an idea to simply put the ball in play. One hit was a bunt. The triple was on the hard grounder past first base in the ninth inning, when the Rockies would get the tying run to the plate after having trailed by seven after the top of the fifth.

“Me and most of the people on this team are having success when we are taking free-and-easy swings,” Hilliard said. “I don’t know if it’s ever happened where you try to hit a home run and you hit a home run.”

There have been multiple stories on this site about how Arenado has fretted about his swing. McMahon’s rises and falls have been tracked since he made the Opening Day roster in 2018. But just because Hilliard is a rookie, that doesn’t mean his work and stress are any less wearing.

“I just went out there today and wanted to have fun,” Hilliard said. “The last couple games I’ve played, they've been rough and I’ve been too hard on myself. Sometimes I’ve got to remember that it’s a game, and it’s a game you’ve played since you were a kid.”