Cardinals laughing their way to playoffs with dynamic duo of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado

Cardinals laughing their way to playoffs with dynamic duo of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado

PHOENIX—One came down from the Rocky Mountains, the other across from the desert.

One was no longer wanted, the other no longer needed.

They were two of the National League West’s biggest and brightest stars, becoming franchise icons in Colorado and Arizona, only to be traded in the cold business of baseball.

Now teammates, after being the centerpieces of the most lopsided trades in their respective franchise histories, they have found utopia in the middle of the country.

Welcome to St Louis, home of the Greatest Corner Infield in baseball.

First baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado, who have combined for 14 All-Star appearances, 13 Gold Glove awards and eight Silver Slugger awards, now have a chance to achieve a historic feat last accomplished more than two decades ago.

Perhaps the most dynamic infield corner since Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff in Atlanta during the 90’s, they could become the first teammates to finish 1-2 in the MVP balloting since Jeff Kent and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants in 2000.

“It’s unbelievable what those guys are doing,” Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols told USA TODAY Sports. “I remember playing against those guys when they came up in the NL West. They are so special. You could put them on any team, and they would be MVPs.

“But what they’re doing, it’s amazing to watch.”

Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt are both NL MVP candidates.

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“This might be the best infield combo in the history of the game,”” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol says, “when you look at both the offense and defensive side. It’s hard to find two better players than that.”

Goldschmidt, who turns 35 in two weeks, is having the greatest season of his spectacular career and the clear front-runner for the MVP award. He leads the National League or ranks in the top three in virtually every offensive category. He could become the NL’s first Triple Crown winner since Joe “Ducky” Medwick in 1937.

Goldschmidt leads the National League with a .339 batting average, .420 on-base percentage, .637 slugging percentage, 1,057 OPS and 284 total bases. He also has a league-leading 105 RBI and is second with 33 homers, one behind Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber.

“In my eyes, he’s the best player in the game,” Arenado says, “and I don’t think it’s close. He’s just playing on another level right now. Hitting, defense and baserunning, it’s unbelievable what he’s doing.

“We take it for granted because he’s been raking all year, but sometimes we’ve got to sit back and appreciate how good this guy is.”

Goldschmidt has five top-10 finishes in the MVP race, twice finishing runner-up, and has been one of the most consistent stars of his era. He has seven 30-homer seasons, seven seasons of at least 95 RBI, nine seasons hitting at least .290, and has missed no more than seven games in eight different seasons.

“If any awards happen after the season, that’s great,” Goldschmidt says. “If they don’t, that’s fine too. I just want to help us win. It’s just in an amazing place. Fans are very passionate about the team, they love their sports, they’re very proud of St. Louis, very welcoming.

“To win a World Series here would mean everything.”

The Cardinals certainly are flying high these days, going 18-5 this month, and leading the National League Central by six games.

And as great as Goldschmidt and Pujols have been in August, no one has been hotter than Arenado, 31, who’s hitting .300 with 26 homers and 82 RBI this season. He has a league-leading seven homers and 22 RBI this month, leading MLB with 16 extra-base hits and 59 total bases.

If he’s not coming up with huge hits, he’s making ridiculous plays, including a jump-in-the-air, bare-handed grab-and-throw off a high chopper that Goldschmidt picked in the dirt last weekend against Arizona, leaving them both laughing

“Jaw-dropping, that play,” Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong said. “It was the best defensive play I’ve seen. It’s just honestly unbelievable watching them play.”

Says Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright: “It’s my favorite play that I can ever remember. I had to break it down on Twitter just to see what went into that play. The thing that made it legendary for me were the big smiles from both of them. They both realized it was a crazy good play, and they both took time to enjoy it.”

The only one smiling wider and more often these days is Cardinals President John Mozeliak, who orchestrated the deals to bring in Goldschmidt and Arenado to St. Louis.

The Cardinals picked up two of the finest players in the game, with one deemed too expensive for the D-backs to keep, and the other too angry for the Rockies to want him around. The Cardinals surrendered nine players in the trades, with most still languishing in the minors, and others released.

The first move was acquiring Goldschmidt on Dec. 5, 2018. The Diamondbacks, realizing they had to pay Goldschmidt or trade him knowing he would be a free agent in a year, began quietly shopping him after the season. Mozeliak learned of his availability at the GM meetings in Carlsbad, California, in November, and pounced on the opportunity.

He gambled that Goldschmidt would fall in love with St. Louis and would want to stay, just like Matt Holliday and Scott Rolen before him.

“We knew it was buyer-beware,” Mozeliak said.

Goldschmidt bought a home in a St. Louis suburb in two months, and before the season started, signed a five-year, $130 million contract to stay.

“I obviously had a lot of respect for the organization,” Goldschmidt said. “I had a little more knowledge coming in from the outside because I knew Waino and Matt Carpenter, and played with some of the guys who were there before. All I heard was great things.

“So it was a pretty easy decision to want to stay.”

Well, four years later, with the way Goldschmidt has embodied the Cardinals’ culture and tradition, you almost forget he wasn’t born and raised in the organization, revered for his worth ethic and quiet demeanor.

“You think about the impact he has made on the Cardinals,” Mozeliak said. “Great players tend to pull other people up. He has made everybody better. He’s a great hitter, an elite defender, and a leader. He’s not the most verbose person; he’s not just talking to talk. But if he says something, it’s probably important to listen.”

He has less of an ego than a Busch Stadium beer vendor, with his idea of ​​swagger being an exuberant high-five.

“Goldy has his swagger,” Arenado says, “but it may not be the swagger how the game looks at everything. He puts his head down and works hard. That’s his swag.”

Arenado, who shows his emotions much more than Goldschmidt, laughs. They have stringent workouts and game preparation, keeping their bodies healthy, making sure swings are right, doing defensive drills, and constantly talking about game strategy against opposing hitters.

“I knew from being with him at the WBC (in 2017) that was an extremely intense worker, on and off the field,” Arenado says, “but he’s a smart worker. Hey doesn’t overwork.

“I always thought he loves to hit. Hey hits. He just doesn’t hit as much as I thought he’d hit. He knows when he’s right. I’ve seen him literally go into the cage, take five flips, and say. ‘I’m good,’ and then hits two homers and a double in the game.

“You’re like, ‘This guy is crazy.”’

There are times that Goldschmidt won’t take batting practice on the field for as long as two weeks, Marmol says, while Arenado will hit until his hands bleed.

“He’s just so competitive, all he wants is to win,” Goldschmidt says. “He works crazy hard. Just watching his routine and the way he works, how hard he plays, the plays he makes, and how much he wants to win, is incredible.”

Who else would make the All-Star team with the game in his hometown of Los Angeles, but instead of basking in the spotlight in front of friends and family, spent the break working out and getting treatment for his back just to assure he’d be healthy the second half?

“It was hard, being home in California, because I have a lot of family that was excited to go,” said Arenado, who left the team Thursday to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. “But I had to think big picture. And the bigger picture is trying to win the division and get treatment done to make sure my body would feel good the second half.”

Two stars, two different workout regiments, but the same vision.

“Nolan is baseball-centric,” Mozeliak says, “and Goldy is more holistic in his approach, but both are equally impressive.”

Arenado, who had signed a franchise record eight-year, $260 million contract with the Rockies on Feb. 26, 2019, wanted out two years later. The Rockies were losing, they weren’t building around him, and his relationship with GM Jeff Bridich deteriorated to a point where they stopped talking.

The Rockies had to make a decision, keep Arenado and believe the relationship would improve, or trade him, fearing he could opt out of his contract and they would be left with nothing.

They decided to eat $51 million of his contract, take pitcher Austin Gomber and four minor leagues, and send him to the Cardinals. They should have gift-wrapped him. The Cardinals never got such a beautiful present for virtually nothing.

Arizona has never been the same since trading Goldschmidt, losing a franchise record 110 games a year ago, and sitting in fourth place (56-67) this season. Colorado went 74-87 and finished fourth in the first year after the Arenado trade, and are now in last place (54-71).

Goldschmidt and Arenado refuse to gloat, each taking the high road and thanking their original organizations for drafting, signing and developing them into perennial All-Stars.

But now that they’re grown up, well, there’s nothing like competing for a World Series championship in a city with 15 postseason berths, four pennants and two World Series titles alone since 2000.

“That’s what it’s all about when you come to St. Louis,” Goldschmidt says. “It’s not about just getting to the playoffs or even winning the division, it’s about championships.

“We want to carry on that tradition here.”

They’re also starting a new tradition, battling with one other to see who picks up the dinner tab on the road, Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner says.

“Whoever has been picking it up lately,” Knizner says, “has gotten hot right away in that series. So, they’re playing good, and we’re eating good.”

There are still 5 ½ weeks left of regular-season games to be played to determine the MVP race, and whether anyone can challenge Goldschmidt. You have third baseman Austin Riley in Atlanta. Third baseman Manny Machado in San Diego. First baseman Pete Alonso in New York. First baseman Freddie Freeman in Los Angeles.

And, of course, Arenado in St. Louis.

“It would be awesome to finish 1-2,” Arenado says, “but it’s his award right now. He’s been unbelievable. I’d just love to finish right behind him.”

And laughing together in November on a World Series parade float.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado are MLB’s best duo