WASHINGTON — Nolan Arenado’s locker in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Ballpark was empty late Saturday afternoon. The Rockies’ all-star third baseman had already departed to begin serving his five-game suspension for fighting.
Arenado’s absence leaves a gaping hole in a Rockies lineup that continues struggling mightily at the plate.
You can toss out Saturday’s loss against Nationals ace Max Scherzer, because nobody’s going hit Scherzer when he pitches like this: seven innings, two runs, one hit, one walk, 11 strikeouts and 20 men set down in order after giving up a two-run homer in the first inning to Charlie Blackmon.
Washington star outfielder Bryce Harper said, “It was one of the best games I’ve seen him throw in a long time.”
Moving forward, however, the Rockies (8-8) must get more production, especially from the lower part of their order. Colorado is batting .220 as a team, 27th in the majors, and has an on-base percentage of .289 (29th). And the road doesn’t get any easier, because on Sunday the Rockies face Washington right-hander Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ second-best pitcher, who is 2-1 with a 2.21 ERA.
Arenado is off to a relatively slow start, batting .288 (15-for-52), with just one homer, but he’s going to be missed at the plate, as well as in the field.
“Nine out of 10 times, Nolan’s going to get the job in front of me,” said Carlos Gonzalez, who hit a homer and drove in both runs in the Rockies’ 2-1 victory over the Nationals on Friday night. “But whenever the guy in front of you doesn’t get the job done, you want to pick it up. That’s what really good teams do, they pick each other up.
“We just need to keep pitching. It (doesn’t) matter who was in the lineup. Obviously, you want to have your horses out there. You want to have (Charlie) Blackmon and (Gerardo) Parra and DJ (LeMahieu) and Nolan. But sometimes things happen. Guys get hurt, guys get suspended. We have to show up with the same intensity and make plays behind our pitchers.”
The trouble is, the Rockies are getting virtually no production from two key players: shortstop Trevor Story and first baseman/outfielder Ian Desmond, both of whom were disappointments last season. Story is batting .190 with a .277 on-base percentage and 22 strikeouts in 58 at-bats (38 percent). Desmond, the former Nationals star, is hitting .185 with a .196 on-base percentage and 17 strikeouts in 54 at-bats (31 percent).
Rookie Ryan McMahon, who started at third base in Arenado’s place Saturday, has just two hits in 23 at-bats (.087). Utility man Pat Valaika, who also could see time at third base during Arenado’s absence, is hitting just .067 (2-for-30).
“I think I can contribute, absolutely,” Valaika said. “This is definitely not the start we wanted, but what are we going to do about it? I’m not going to think about these past two weeks. That’s not going to help me. Every day I’m coming to the park with a positive attitude and the main goal is to help the team any way I can.”
McMahon chooses to see the situation as a chance.
“I don’t see this as extra weight on me, I see it as an opportunity,” he said. “I just have to go out there and play well until Nolan gets back, and then welcome him back with open arms, because he is a hell of a player. We have to work with what we’ve got right now, but I still like our chances.”