The early impact of Anthony Rendon and Adam LaRoche

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

brushback_harperThrough seven games, the Nationals two best players are those who will be most affected by Ryan Zimmerman’s return. Despite hitting from different spots in the lineup, infielder Anthony Rendon has wielded the team’s best bat. He hasn’t drawn a walk but is hitting .407 (11 for 27) with eight RBI. First baseman Adam LaRoche has played strong defense at first base and has been perhaps the second best hitter on the team or at least in a close tie with right fielder Jayson Werth. Traditionally a slow starter, LaRoche is hitting .348 (8 for 23) with nine RBI. He has walked seven times and struck out just four times.

In Tuesday’s 5-0 win over the Miami Marlins, the play of both players was crucial. Rendon went 2 for 4 with three RBI and had the game-sealing two-run double in the eighth, while also making perhaps the best defensive play of the game. LaRoche went 3 for 3, score two runs and walked in his other plate appearance, while also smartly running the bases, a byproducts of Manager Matt Williams’s base running.

Because Zimmerman was resting his inflamed-but-improving right shoulder on Tuesday, Rendon started at his natural position. In the seventh inning, he made what was at the time the biggest play of the game. Drew Storen inherited a base runner and an out from Jerry Blevins. Storen’s first batter, Marcell Ozuna, singled to right to put two runners on with one out.

With the count at 1-1, Reed Johnson bunted a ball down the third baseline. When the Nationals went over the defensive game plan before the game, Rendon learned that Johnson liked to bunt for a basehit. Oddly enough, before the at-bat, Rendon said Williams signaled for him to scoot back because Johnson was going to swing, so he moved three or four steps back from being even with the bag. “And, whoop, he lays one down,” Rendon said.

Rendon quickly raced towards the ball, barehanded the spinning ball and fired an on-target throw to first to beat Johnson by a step. It was an impressive and crucial play made with all of his body’s momentum carrying him towards home plate. “I did it a good amount of times in college,” he said. “I guess I still have a little bit left.”

Rendon normally plays second base so he doesn’t get to flash his quick arm on long throws as often. But he has the ability to charge the ball well and fire a bullet to first base.

“You see him throw before the game and taking grounders, it’s unbelievable,” Storen said. “Not matter how good your arm is, to throw it from down there, bare-hand, all those different factors that go into that play, it’s an unbelievable play. You have a good arm but you can still throw that in the seats.”

Rendon’s bat has also helped power the Nationals offense, but so has the hitting of LaRoche. The first baseman has a career .215 average and .704 OPS in the first month of the season. Last April, LaRoche started in a slump, hit .136 for the month with three home runs, drew eight walks and struck out 29 times. He has seven walks and two home runs already through seven games this season.

“I’ve seen Adam hit 30 and drive in 100,” Williams said. “And I know he’s capable of doing that. What’s encouraging to me is him hitting the ball the other way, and taking the single when it’s given to him. So what he’s done so far is he’s handled lefties pretty well and stayed on the baseball. We saw that a lot in spring training, too.”

LaRoche has also hit the ball the other way well, too. He said ideally he wants to pull and drive the ball to right field, but because his timing and positioning during his swing has been good, he has been able to hit the ball to left.

“I felt good in spring training,” he said. “Last couple of weeks in spring, I worked on some minor tweaks in my swing, just trying to shorten it up a little bit. And staying soft on the front leg. It’s paying off now. It feels good. Again, that’s it. It comes and goes so you just ride it out.”

LaRoche, not particularly fleet of foot, also made an impact with his base running. Bryce Harper and LaRoche took advantage of Henderson Alvarez’s propensity for throwing balls in the dirt and in the sixth inning advanced a base each, with Harper scoring, when another curveball skipped into the ground. The throw from Jarrod Saltalamacchia beat LaRoche but second baseman Jeff Baker dropped the ball. LaRoche’s aggression forced the defense to make a play and the Marlins failed.

In the first inning, LaRoche also allowed Werth to score from second by drawing attention away from him. As Werth raced home, left fielder Johnson charged LaRoche’s single and threw home. LaRoche saw that and rounded first. That aggression forced third baseman Casey McGehee to decide. He could let the ball go and try to nail Werth at the plate, which would risk the run scoring and a runner advancing into scoring position. Or he could cut the ball off, conceding the run but guaranteeing an end to the inning.

McGehee caught the ball and ran at LaRoche, starting a rundown. The Marlins tagged out LaRoche, but he had done his job with the bat and on the bases. “The score will dictate,” LaRoche said. “If we’re down two or three runs there, it’s probably not a good time to do it.”

The playing time of both Rendon and LaRoche will be affected when Zimmerman returns. If healthy, the Nationals are a better team with Zimmerman in the lineup. But for this game, while Zimmerman rested his shoulder for another day, LaRoche and Rendon again helped carry the team.

FROM THE POST

Gio Gonzalez, with the help of Anthony Rendon and Adam LaRoche, dominates the Marlins in a 5-0 Nationals win, writes Adam Kilgore.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Wilson Ramos on hand surgery: ‘I feel unlucky’

Matt Williams shuffles Nationals starting rotation

Ryan Zimmerman hopes to return Wednesday, changes throwing motion, routine

Ryan Zimmerman has an ‘arthritic’ shoulder, tries something new

The Marlins are good? They’re off to a strong start

MINOR LEAGUE BOX SCORES

Pawtucket 7, Syracuse 1: Omar Poveda allowed seven runs on seven hits and four walks over four innings. Walter Madrigal fired two scoreless innings, along with scoreless frames from Josh Roenicke and Christian Garcia. Emmanuel Burriss drove in Syracuse’s lone run. Will Rhymes doubled.

Harrisburg 6, New Britain 2: A.J. Cole allowed two runs, one earned, and walked one over five innings to earn his first win. Matt Grace notched a 2 1/3-inning save. Destin Hood went 3 for 5. Caleb Ramsey drove in three runs while Jason Martinson added two.

Lynchburg 10, Potomac 7: Nick Lee allowed seven runs on seven hits over 1 2/3 innings. Brian Dupra allowed one run over 3 1/3 innings of relief. Bryan Harper fired two scoreless innings. Kevin Keyes went 2 for 5 with two RBI. Oscar Tejeda finished 3 for 5.

Hagerstown 7, Delmarva 1: Nick Pivetta allowed one run on three hits and struck out three over five innings. Jake Walsh fired two scoreless in relief. Isaac Ballou, Estarlin Martinez, James Yezzo and Rafael Bautista had two hits each.

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