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It’s early, but pressure is mounting for Nolan Arenado and the Rockies

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As clubhouse leader, Nolan Arenado channels the pressure on the Rockies

Nolan Arenado has been growing into a leadership role on the Rockies. This started becoming apparent in January 2018, during the Rockies’ offseason caravan, when we learned about how Nolan seemed to take the Rockies’ 2017 Wild Card loss to the Diamondbacks personally. He turned that into motivation for himself and his teammates in 2018. The Rockies’ re-signing of veteran Carlos González blunted Arenado’s captaincy a little bit because CarGo was the veteran presence in the clubhouse. As the 2018 season wore on, however, Arenado grew into the role even more, and it was once again tied directly to Nolan’s emotional investment in the team. And now that Nolan has signed the richest contract in club history, he has the mantle of team leader more than ever.

This was evident to me hours before Friday’s home opener started. I’ve traveled to Colorado for the Rockies’ first home series each of the last three seasons. I typically request press credentials for 1-2 games, and over the years I’ve learned that on Opening Day, you should prepare questions that anyone can answer rather than targeting a single player. That’s because on any given day a player might not even be available, and with limited time you have to come prepared to talk to whoever’s around. That, and some guys tend to want to avoid the scrum of Opening Day, when there are a more people there who aren’t regulars — people like me. Because of that, I didn’t arrive at Coors Field Friday morning anticipating a conversation with Nolan.

As I was making my way to the clubhouse, I ran into other members of the press walking in the opposite direction. “Nolan’s in the media room,” they said. That itself was new. Renovations prior to the 2018 season gave Coors Field a new and spacious media room — one that accommodates multiple television crews and an enlarged press corp. This is where Bud Black does his post-game press conferences. But this was the firs time I’ve seen a player hold a press conference like this.

That’s not to say it was necessarily atypical — like I said, I’m not there often enough to know. But because it was new to me, I paid attention to different things. Specifically, the questions and answers were about much more than Nolan Arenado. There was much more “we” than “I.” It was also easy to feel the weight Arenado felt after the road trip. He made multiple references to how bad it went. And that, in turn, made it clear to see how badly Arenado wants to win. Not that anyone needs more evidence to know how competitive Nolan is, but in this context, and in hindsight after an equally bad stretch of games against the Dodgers, it was easy to see the growing presence of leadership’s close cousin: pressure.

To the first point, Nolan was being treated as a spokesman for the team — the captain of the ship — and even for questions he could have answered for himself, he spoke for the team. MLB.com’s Thomas Harding asked what it was like for the team to come off a long road trip and return to a newly refurbished clubhouse (this was the product of another round renovations within Coors Field’s guts).

“We were really excited,” Arenado answered in the first person plural. “It gave us a little more excitement for Opening Day. It kind of made you forget what happened on that road trip.”

When asked if the Rockies are in a position to “take the next step” and finally win a division title, Nolan responded in the context of what had just happened. The Rays series was clearly on his mind, and he was unsurprisingly far from satisfied with it: “We’re prepared and ready to go. I think we have a really good team. Things just have to fall into place, and we have to do things a little better than in the first seven games.”

That’s not to say Arenado thought the season was written in the first seven games. The very next question asked whether he thought it was nice to get the Dodgers so early in the season to serve as a sort of “gut check.” “It’s game eight, you know?” Nolan responded. The first seven games were unsatisfactory, and the next three are important, but they weren’t the season, collectively or together. Still though, Arenado took the point that the Dodgers are something more than just another opponent to host at home. “They’ve ran away with the division the last six years . . . they’re really tough. But we have a chance to win and send a message that we’re here to stay. We’ll see what happens.”

The “we’ll see what happens” theme came back, as did the reflection on the road trip from Florida. Patrick Saunders from the Denver Post mentioned what Chris Iannetta said in Tampa, “that people are overreacting from the slow start.”

“They are,” Arenado interrupted, with confidence and affirmation from the entire room. “But,” Saunders continued, “is stringing at bats together better than last season one of the keys for this club going forward — forget about the seven games —to this team winning a division title?”

Yes, Nolan said. And he didn’t forget about those seven games. It’s not contradictory to hold that there’s some overreaction to a slow offensive start while also acknowledging that a weak offense could bite the Rockies in 2019. “It’s early in the season, but you’re still losing games,” Nolan said, “and those are games we could have won. It’s frustrating, I get why people are frustrated. We’re just as frustrated. But if we can have those good at bats later in the game, we can turn the tide.”

Three losses later, it’s likely that the frustration has only mounted further, and the urgency to turn the tide is greater now than it was before, no matter the date. This is where Nolan Arenado and the Rockies find themselves. With the understanding that even great teams have 3-7 stretches in any given season, but that they seem worse when it’s the first 10 games, while at the same time knowing that the how and why of those losses could be serious liabilities. It’s early, but it’s not too early for the Rockies and their clubhouse leader to feel pressure.