Nuñez's hard work, 'passion' spark big day
Rookie catcher notches 3 hits, drives in a run as Rockies avoid sweep
PHOENIX -- The smile has never left Dom Nuñez’s face, and the belief never left his soul. Guys like that eventually are rewarded -- the way Nuñez was with his three hits, including two doubles, in the Rockies’ 9-3 victory over the D-backs at Chase Field on Thursday afternoon.
By any statistical measure, this has been a rough rookie year. Nuñez entered the game with a .159 batting average in 66 games. His three hits in the series finale equaled his total from his previous 10 games.
Nuñez counted himself as merely a cog in a Rockies offense that offered through-the-lineup production, which has been rare on the road -- the team’s 7-33 road record is a head-scratcher, considering its 31-17 home mark. Colorado entered the seventh inning of Thursday's contest with a 4-3 lead and scored four runs in the frame, which was its biggest inning in a road game since scoring four in the sixth inning at Cincinnati on June 11.
“Everybody that played today contributed in some way, and when that happens with an entire lineup, good things happen,” Nuñez said. “We were playing for each other and playing to win the game, rather than chasing your numbers or chasing stats.
“Because that definitely happens to all of us. We get in that mindset and it’s tough -- you play a lot, and it’s a long season. When you can lean on someone else, someone else is pushing you, or helping you out and picking you up, that’s what this game is all about.”
Nuñez rarely needs to be picked up. A notorious pull hitter, he has been more of a threat for extra-base hits than singles. He has five homers, and 16 of his 26 hits have gone for at least two bases. But a single is better than an out. A busy left-handed swing, which involves a leg kick and some arm movement that can lead to problematic head movement, often affects his ability to consistently make contact.
As his struggles this season deepened and playing time lessened, Nuñez faithfully took extra batting practice.
“If you can't get fired up -- in front of fans like this, and big league ballparks like this, we're in the wrong job,” Nuñez said before a recent game, sweaty from swings but energized from on-field conversations with hitting coach Dave Magadan and assistant hitting coach Jeff Salazar. “So it's definitely a challenge. But I think when the lights go on, it's not a challenge. A baseball player takes over, and the passion that I have for the game, the love that I have for the game, takes over.”
The Rockies can celebrate the accomplishments of two catchers who began the season struggling. Elias Díaz has broken out with five home runs in his last eight games and a .300 average in his last 21 games. He and Nuñez are trying to position themselves to be in the picture should the team work its way toward contending status in future seasons.
“Without even having to say anything, we push each other,” Nuñez said. “You see him putting in work in, squaring the ball up, having really good at-bats. It just makes me want to do the same thing, because it works.”
Maybe Thursday was Nuñez’s start to Díaz-like production. Nuñez’s doubles both went to left field, which pleased manager Bud Black.
“Dom has a tendency to pull the ball, [but] to maybe roll over some grounders on the pull side,” Black said. “We want him to stay in a little bit more through the ball, [and] using the left-center-field gap is sort of a nice sight. So it was good to see.”
Nuñez is making the swing adjustments while also learning to catch in the Majors, a demanding role in and of itself.
“Each time he gets back there behind the plate, it's good,” said Rockies bench coach Mike Redmond, a former Major League catcher. “This is his first full year in the big leagues, and it’s an experience. I think he’s handled it well, and there is still growth.”
Starting pitcher Chi Chi González has vouched for Nuñez’s pitch-calling, which came into play on Thursday. González gave up three runs on six hits and a walk over five innings, striking out five. A home run by Josh VanMeter and Colorado’s need for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning shortened his outing. But Nuñez’s offense helped seal the win for González.
“Dom gives us confidence every time he's back there -- he knows that,” González said. “If he hits more, he’d be able to play more. I'm happy that he was able to stick to his approach, crush the ball the other way for two doubles [and] hit the ball where they’re not.”