Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has searched for ways to jump-start a sleepy offense and after nearly two and a half months of trying he has turned to this: Rookie Anthony Rendon, with 15 games of major league experience, in the No. 2 spot of the lineup for the first time.
Johnson explained that because of the designated hitter in an American League stadium and a left-hander on the mound for the Indians he was turning to Rendon to help set the table. He still prefers batting Rendon in the sixth or seventh spot behind Ian Desmond, but there’s an underlying reason behind it: Rendon, 23, is one of the few Nationals hitters getting on base and hitting consistently well over the past week and a half.
“I’m looking for something to generate offense, some people getting on and driving in some runs,” Johnson said sitting in the dugout before Saturday’s game at Progressive Field in Cleveland. “We haven’t had a lot of table-setters in front of the thumpers,” he said earlier.
Since Rendon was called up again June 4, he has handled most of the second base duties and is hitting .370 (10 for 27) with four doubles, four RBI and two walks. Albeit a small sample size, his on-base percentage is those 29 plate appearances is .414. He’s a contact hitter who can draw walks.
“He’s performed well,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s got a good plan at the plate. His approach is good. And he’s a guy that we thought would put the bat on the ball and produce at the bottom of the lineup and he has. He’s got a calmness about his whole game, defensively and offensively. He feels comfortable at this level.”
Four days after he promoted to Class AAA Syracuse to refine his second base play, Rendon was thrust back into the majors. His first stint was to play third base — his natural position — while Ryan Zimmerman was on the disabled list; this time was to play second base while Danny Espinosa landed on the disabled list. Rendon, the No. 6 overall pick of the 2011 draft with only 79 games at the minor league level, was asked to man important positions at the major league level and produce. It does not seem to have overwhelmed him.
“I’m just trying to stay calm up there,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a game. You can’t take it out more than that. I just try to go up there and try to barrel the ball. Obviously, I’m not a 6-3, 6-4, 235-pound guy so I’m not going to be swinging for the fences. So I’m just trying to do my thing, go up there and try to barrel it.
“In the end, the plate is still the plate. It’s not like when you come here the plate gets bigger, the plate gets smaller. You just gotta go up there and the ball still needs to cross the plate, the same strike zone. If I see it cross the strike zone and I see it, I’m just gonna try to barrel it.”
As far as learning second base, a position he last played in little league and had only played eight times at the professional level before last week, Rendon has held his own. He has quick hands and a strong arm. He has also been part of two double plays, starting one himself. The biggest differences compared to third base have been the angle of the balls off the bat, the spin and footwork.
“I’m learning more and more every day,” he said. “Obviously, the more I go out there the more comfortable I’m going to feel. Just trying to take it day by day and learn as much as I can. I got a lot of help from Desmond and [first baseman Adam] LaRoche. They’ve been trying to position me. [Right fielder Jayson] Werth has chipped in, saying, ‘I’m playing back. On a fly ball I gotta go get it.’ Just the little things, they’re make it easier for me.”
But, even then, Rendon still has learning. In one play in Thursday’s game in Denver, Rendon fielded a slow roller and fired a bullet from close by to LaRoche at first to beat out the racing runner. LaRoche flashed a look that seemed to remind Rendon that he didn’t need to throw it so hard; he wasn’t at third base any more. “It was a slow roller, man,” Rendon said, laughing.