PHOENIX — Maybe, just maybe, all those ghosts from Nolan Arenado’s past are gone.
These intensified fights in the postseason.
The miserable showing at the last World Baseball Classic.
The stigma of not performing in the clutch.
Here he was for the whole baseball world on Saturday night, pulling off perhaps the biggest push of his career.
Arenado, who led Team USA to a 6-2 win over Great Britain in his first WBC game, went 3-on-5 with two doubles and two RBI, made two fabulous defensive plays and was the only player to score multiple goals .
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It may be March, but the St. Louis Cardinals all-star third baseman is playing like it’s October.
Arenado plays with 17 teammates who are All-Stars, three who have won MVP awards, and seven who are World Series Champions, but nobody plays like this guy. He batted .571 with the Cardinals at their spring training camp, hit a grand slam in the USA’s show win over the Los Angeles Angels, and then put on a show Saturday in front of a crowd of 39,650 at Chase Field.
He hardly resembles the same guy who hit .161 at the 2017 WBC and hit 11 times in 31 at-bats, including six in a row.
Nobody looked worse, and now nobody looks better.
“I’m enjoying it a lot more,” Arenado said. “I was definitely a bit more nervous when I was 17 because I was a bit younger and wanted to do too much. I didn’t have to be like that there, and I definitely don’t have to be like that with this team now.
Maybe, but then again, as he showed tonight, he’s still capable of carrying any team on his back.
He will start with Team USA in this tournament and then in a couple of weeks with the Cardinals when they open the season.
“First of all, he’s just an absolute superstar,” said US coach Mark DeRosa. “The intensity with which he works before the game is honestly – I’m not glossing over it – like nothing I’ve seen.
“He is intense in groundballs. He is intense in his cage work.”
The difference now is that he’s able to control his emotions, doesn’t get as overexcited, and slows down as the game speeds up.
He struggled badly in his postseason career, finishing just .153 with a .143 base percentage and .242 slugging percentage. He had just one hit in eight at-bats in the Cardinals’ first-round elimination against the Philadelphia Phillies last season, but had several hard-hit outs.
Now, with his first pressure play since the wild card round, maybe now is his time to shine.
“I think the WBC helps prepare for the season,” Arenado said this week. “It speeds up the process. There are intense games. handling the pressure. It will speed up for sure.
“I think it prepares you for opening day.”
Just ask Cardinals MVP Paul Goldschmidt, who with Arenado are the only two returnees from the 2017 USA team. Goldschmidt also struggled at the 2017 WBC, hitting .077 while being benched in the last two games, but came out and had a monstrous regular season. He hit .297 with 36 home runs, 120 RBI and .966 OPS and finished third in MVP voting.
“I think that prepares you,” says Goldschmidt. “You’re sort of closer to midseason form. All of a sudden opening day rolls around, you’re like I already did that. The intensity isn’t nearly as high as these games until you reach the playoffs.
“So I think it has the potential to help. It’s not a guarantee, but looking back I think it can take you to a better place. …
“You also learn a lot from your teammates. We play with some of the best players in the world. We sit in the cage, talk and hit. Get into those conversations. I learned a lot last time.”
No wonder Goldschmidt and Arenado fought for spots on the team before USA even hired a manager or GM, believing that a game at the WBC would give them a strong start to the season.
“It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had as a player,” says Arenado. “I always suggest the players to play here. I can understand why pitchers don’t do this, but as a positional player there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. It gets you ready for the season.”
Forget March 30 when the Cardinals take on the Toronto Blue Jays on Opening Day at Busch Stadium.
Arenado looks ready for the postseason that the Cardinals flock to every year.
“I’ve played with some great fielders,” said Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright, the winning pitcher in Saturday’s game. “I don’t know if I’ve ever played with someone like that behind me. I’ve played with myself and I feel like the best defensive catcher [Yadier Molina] of all time and i had [Hall of Famer] Scott Rolen at third base. No shot at him but Nolan Arenado is just a special, special player.”
He has already won a gold medal.
He wants at least one more.
And yes, a World Series title too.
“I think if we win the gold medal, we can’t play in the Olympics,” says Arenado, “that’s really what’s right for me. Winning that was incredible. Every time I’ve played in the playoffs, we haven’t gone far. And I didn’t perform well.
“To be part of a team that won, just to be part of a group of people picking each other up was an incredible feeling.
“And of course we’re hoping that we can change that for the Cardinals this season.”
The way Arenado performs these days, hey, why not dream big?
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightgale.