PHOENIX — When they finally had a chance the next inning to check the video of Nolan Arenado’s home run on a swing even the opposing pitcher called “unbelievable,” some members of the Cardinals dugout marveled at the pitch Arenado reached and kept fair.
Hitting coach Jeff Albert described the reactions as “holy cow” and “pretty neat.”
“And then I was like, ‘Wait until you see the 0-2 pitch,’” Albert recalled Saturday in a conversation with the Post-Dispatch. “I think that pitch was even tougher, and somehow he got a bat on it.”
In the third inning of the Cardinals’ 8-6 victory Friday night against Arizona, Arenado overpowered lefty Madison Bumgarner for a solo home run on the eighth pitch of the at-bat. The pitch Arenado pulled into the left-field seats was a slashing cutter, one veering inside and headed toward his back foot, and still Arenado was able to keep his hands quick and the ball fair for his 11th homer of the season. Five pitches earlier, Arenado pulled an inside fastball well foul, leaving his hitting coach wide-eyed and eager to share the replay.
After the game, Bumgarner, a World Series MVP and October sensation, said it was “probably the best at-bat I can recall anybody having against me.”
It was an at-bat against a familiar foe that distilled what Arenado has been working on, and what the Cardinals, meandering offensively in recent weeks, have been trying to regain. In the middle of the at-bat, Arenado stepped several strides away from the box, mimicked his stance at the plate, and appeared to be resetting his base. He sought his center. Arenado would describe later he was reminding himself to remain upright like he and Albert have been working on the batting cage. Albert saw an example of the talk around the cage.
“Lately that’s been part of the conversation because we’ve had a little bit rougher stretch and somethings haven’t gone our way especially offensively,” Albert said. “Guys are up there looking to lock-in on the basics — get their pitch, hit it hard — the basics that we built up during spring training. Not the external circumstances. Just lock in on what you do. … That one at-bat is a really good example of what the guys in the group are trying to do collectively.”
With that homer, Arenado continued to lead the National League and tie for the big-league lead in extra-base hits with more of them (29) than he has strikeouts (28) through 51 games. Arenado also leads the majors in doubles and is top four in total bases.
He’s been the Cardinals’ most consistent source of production through a month that’s seen them settle somewhere slightly below average as an offense. Their .237 average ranks 20th, their .395 slugging percentage ranks 18th and as far as advanced metrics go, their average exit velocity (88.9 mph) is 17th and their hard-hit rate (38.7%) is 19th. Where it matters, on the scoreboard, the Cardinals came to Arizona having scored three or fewer runs in 10 of their previous 15 games.
For Arenado, a matchup with former Giants star Bumgarner was a welcome test of the focus he’s had in the cage. Well, maybe not welcome. But revealing. He’d faced the lefty 69 times in his career — and has been knocked off balance by the seesaw cutter before.
“Facing Madison — he kind of gets me in between sometimes,” Arenado said. “For some reason facing him he gets me like that. He backdoors the cutter, and then he can throw it in, so I get caught in between. I’ve been having trouble, I guess, (so) just takin’ a deep breath, slow that at-bat down. … (We’ve been) making sure I’m keeping my body out of the way when I swing, keeping my upper body not leaning over. It worked there.”
Leaning over has been a natural reaction to how Arenado has been pitched recently, Albert said. Opposing teams are working away, soft-serve to the outside, and to find hits, Arenado’s swing has followed. The cleanup hitter has several drills he does in the cage to pull himself back and clear that space for his hands to do what he does as well as anyone — pull the ball for power. The home run off Bumgarner was Arenado’s 187th to the pull side since 2013.
Only one batter has more in that span.
From 2016 to this weekend, Arenado has 130 pull-side homers. No other hitter who has been in the National League for that same span has more than 100. Arenado’s 347 pull-side doubles and homers combined since 2013 lead all hitters. Edwin Encarnacion is second with 309. Matt Carpenter tops the Cardinals with 243.
“He’s done that his whole career,” Albert said. “If you look at the spray of his power and his career home runs he is the most exceptional guy in the big leagues over the past five to seven years at being able to pull a ball in the air and keep it straight instead of pull it foul or hook it on the ground. That’s the most valuable contact, and he’s really, really good at it. He’s gotten better and better and better at that.”
Not that he can always explain it.
After the game Friday, Arenado did what the dugout did and checked the video to see just where Bumgarner’s cutter was when he was able to get the barrel to it and send it to a seat.
It was pretty neat.
“I don’t know how I was fouling some of them off,” Arenado said. “That one I was just able to barrel. Can’t really explain it. I’m happy it went out.”
Rondon leaves Olympics for majors Infielder Jose Rondon had reached Florida, the site of next week’s Olympic trials for Team Venezuela and others, when he had to turn around and head west — for the majors. A day after being placed on the temporary inactive roster so that he could play for his country in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Florida, Rondon got an urgent call from the Cardinals to join them in Arizona and be on the bench Saturday night.
He got to the ballpark in time to go through fielding drills with coaches Stubby Clapp and Willie McGee at third base, shortstop, and in left field.
Rondon’s promotion was prompted by Max Moroff’s sudden shoulder injury. During batting practice in a cage, the backup infielder caught his bat in the net on a follow-through. The net didn’t give. His left shoulder did. Scans of the injured joint were being taken Saturday in Phoenix to determine the extent of the damage.
Moroff’s injury made it possible for the Cardinals to bring back reliever Junior Fernandez without the righthander spending 10 days in the minors. The Cardinals optioned starter Johan Oviedo to Class AAA Memphis, though he’ll remain on the road with the taxi squad. Rondon got Oviedo’s spot on the active roster, and to make room on the 40-man roster for Rondon the Cardinals moved Miles Mikolas (forearm) to the 60-day injured list. That does not alter or push back Mikolas’ recovery time because he’s set to go at least a month without throwing and will require at least another four weeks to rebuild arm strength.
His earliest return can be the third week of July.
Rondon, 27, was one of the final cuts of camp, edged for a roster spot by Edmundo Sosa. As the Triple-A Redbirds’ starting shortstop in most games, Rondon has hit .235 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 21 games.
“Six homers in Memphis — I don’t know if that’s a big part of his game, but it’s a part of his game,” Shildt said of the former minor-league free agent. “Multiple skillsets.”
Miller heads to STL
Reliever Andrew Miller (foot) started and pitched a scoreless inning for Class AAA Memphis on Saturday evening in what could be his final rehab appearance before rejoining the Cardinals’ bullpen. He headed to St. Louis on Saturday night to determine his next move. Miller struck out two of the four batters he faced, walked one, and completed the inning on 18 pitches (13 strikes). The lefty has been on the injured list with a toe injury, and during his weeks away he tested new cleats and refined parts of his delivery that had come unmoored in part of because his sore foot was keeping him from pushing off at full strength. … Paul DeJong (rib fracture) is able to take groundballs during his workouts but the team is being cautious with their shortstop to avoid having “a non-displaced fracture become a fracture if we don’t take care of it,” Shildt said. “He makes a movement or gets hit in that area (then) has a setback.” DeJong will take a rehab assignment before returning. … Arizona activated Christian Walker (oblique strain) before Saturday’s game. Walker, the D-Backs’ heir at first base to Paul Goldschmidt, has been forced to the injured list twice because of the strain.