It came without rallies. It came without whacks. It came without slugfests, or offensive attacks.
It came with 162,707 fans over four days, and they came to see Nolan Arenado in his first games back “home” at Coors Field since being traded to the Cardinals in February. As a bonus, fans heard the good news that Nolan will be back in Colorado next week as an All-Star starter.
They saw German Marquez give one of the best pitching performances ever at Coors Field and earn a spot on the All-Star roster, and they saw him lead one of the most astounding homestands the Rockies have ever played, going 6-1 and allowing two runs or fewer in six of the seven games, including two shutouts and Marquez’s complete game one-hit shutout against the Pirates.
“It's been great,” Nolan told the Daily Planet midway through the four-day set, overwhelmed by the response of the fans. “A little hectic. A lot going on. It's been amazing. The fans have been great. My family's really stoked.”
Nolan appeared uncertain of the reaction he’d get in the city where he played his first eight seasons, playing along with the media who seemed bent on fabricating a fantasy of fictional fans who might boo the best player to ever come out of Colorado.
“[The fans tell me] they miss me, and [they’ll] always be cheering for me and stuff that, honestly, I really appreciate hearing,” Nolan said before the series started. “I love seeing people still wearing my Rockies jersey. They haven't got rid of it yet, so it's still pretty cool to see that. It makes me feel, definitely, very good.”
When Nolan sprinted onto the sun-drenched field 20 minutes before first pitch, he got nothing but cheers from an attentive crowd that sat through a couple of hours of rain to see their favorite former franchise player.
The last time Nolan played in Colorado, there were 14 people in the park who weren’t employed by the Rockies, the visiting Dodgers, or Major League Baseball in the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
“My last glimpse of Coors Field is with no fans, so it was kind of not the most fun time in 2020,” Arenado said of his return to his old stomping grounds. “It'll be a lot better to see a lot of fans [and] bring back the good memories of 2013 to 2019.”
When the moment finally came and Nolan walked from the on-deck circle to home plate with one on and one out in the top of the first, the crowd erupted in a universal ovation, as warm as could be, while Nolan doffed his helmet, tapped his heart, gestured to the crowd, and soaked in the mutual admiration for a full emotional minute before stepping in and popping out to first.
“Boos are part of the game,” Nolan said before receiving nary a one. “I am on the road team now, and I am the enemy, so I understand that those are going to come. “Whatever it is, it is what it is, I guess.”
Nolan the enemy? Not back home in Colorado. Not where he earned eight Gold Gloves in his first eight seasons, four consecutive Platinum Gloves, five All-Star trips, four Silver Slugger Awards, two Wild Card berths to the post season, five times appearing in the top 10 of the MVP voting (including three time in the top five) and the hearts of every Coloradan who watched in awe on a daily basis as Arenado astounded like few in the game ever have — on the field at third even more than at the plate.
“I love this field,” Nolan said,glowing as he reflected on his comfort level at the hot Coors corner. “I know it very well. The midwest fields are a little different, like the dirt, the grass — it just feels a little different than Colorado and the west coast. But I know this field really well.”
Fans know the difference between leaving a team and being traded by a general manager (who was subsequently run out of town). Jeff Bridich’s absence from the Rockies organization must have made the trip back that much better for Nolan and his former pals in purple pinstripes. Arenado beamed with joy as he hugged former coaches and teammates — even Charlie Blackmon, who he calls his brother, despite acknowledging that, “Charlie’s not a huggable person, really, if you think about it.”
The Rockies gave him a “Welcome Back” tribute on the video scoreboard before the opener, and by the end of the long weekend, there was so much goodwill, you could almost imagine a return some day, and not just for Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
The All-Star start — elected by fans — is a testament to a new chapter in his career, extending his success beyond the friendly confines of Colorado.
“Representing the Cardinals is an unbelievable feeling,” Nolan said. “To be in for my sixth time, it's crazy to think about — and obviously to come back to Colorado. Of course it would be here….It [will] be amazing to come back here and spend some time here again. I love Denver so it'll be really good.”
Nolan even offered the exclusive confirmation that he might be teaming up with his other brother from a Blake Street mother and joining Trevor Story in the Home Run Derby.
“I have been asked,” he confided. “I've thought about it. I'm probably running out of time to give them an answer, but I still need a little bit of a break. We'll see.”
Some sluggers balk at batting in the Derby for fear up messing up their swing, but Nolan's BP Saturday looked like a Derby, much to the delight of the early souvenir-seeking fans in the left field bleachers.
There’s always concern when a slugger like Nolan leaves Colorado — witness the offensive road woes of this year’s team — with the thought that Coors Field inflates the numbers for players at the plate. Nolan’s homecoming, however, put the theory to rest. He went 2-for-14 with a double, three walks, and three strikeouts over four games — hitting nearly 120 points below his season average on his return to the “inflating” altitude of the Mile High City.
Or maybe it’s the pitching. Led by Marquez, the starting rotation has been unprecedentedly un-Rockie. They posted a 1.57 ERA against the Pirates and Cardinals, allowing just eight earned runs in seven games. They’ve made Coors Field finally look of this world, posting an enviable 3.32 ERA at home, where they play like contenders.
“The thing that sticks out for me, is it’s really good baseball,” manager Bud Black said at the end of the four-game series with the Cardinals to wrap the seven-game homestand. “High drama, you know, two teams that I thought played real well. They pitched, some clutch hitting, not a lot of runs that you would expect this time of the year in this ballpark. So it's a tribute to all the pitchers, both sides, that really pitched well. Like I said, the thing that sticks out to me is just the quality of the games and the intenseness.”
The intenseness showed up with three games won in the final at-bat — including their only loss, when the Cards scored six in the 10th inning Friday. The Rockies walked off twice on the homestand, with Nolan’s cousin Joshua Fuentes sparking a two-out rally in the ninth Sunday and setting up Elias Diaz for a game-winning RBI single just three days after he blasted a walk-off homer to win Thursday’s opener. Colorado has a league-best nine walk-off wins, already one shy of their franchise record of 10 in a full season in 2010.
But the rotation is the biggest story of the season, and no team in baseball has won more games at home than the Rockies, who are 31-17 at altitude through Monday. They’ve seen marked improvement from their 9-17 April start, going 11-17 in May, 14-13 in June, and 3-1 so far in July.
“I didn't get a great start to start the year,” Marquez told the Planet of his pride in representing the Rockies and the rotation at the mid-summer classic. “But I had results as of late, and I'm extremely grateful. I worked really hard to get to where I'm at.”
Over his last four starts, Marquez has posted a 0.93 ERA, throwing 29 innings and allowing just three earned runs on nine hits and four walks while striking out 25, including 11 on Sunday.
Sadly, no team in baseball has won fewer road games than Colorado’s 6-31 mark on the road, leaving them 11 games under .500 and 17 games behind the Giants through Sunday.
“The hardest thing about when you play here is that fans want to win,” Nolan summed up. “So when you're losing, it's hard to really appreciate things. I understand that completely, because I was a part of this, but you know, I think they appreciate individual performance.”
The season, the homestand, and Nolan’s homecoming series stand as Exhibit A for the fans’ ability to appreciate what Thomas Boswell calls “the process, the pleasure, the grain of the game.”