CLEVELAND — Anthony Rendon skied the first pitch he saw from Cleveland Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano in the ninth inning. Second baseman Jason Kipnis raced into foul territory and first baseman Nick Swisher ran back to make a play that appeared routine. Two defenders, an easy popup in foul ground. Neither, however, caught it. Rendon, the sweet-swinging prospect recalled 10 days ago and thrust into a starting role, was given a second life.
Chad Tracy, the Washington Nationals’ veteran bench player who tied the game with a pinch-hit homer in the eighth inning, turned to backup catcher Jhonatan Solano in the dugout. Baseball works in curious ways, and Tracy and Solano sensed the sport’s gods at play.
“We were both, ‘He’s getting ready to hit a home run,’ ” Tracy said later in a noisy visitor’s clubhouse. “And everybody kept saying, ‘A great time for your first. A great time for your first.’ ”
As he has in his eight games since his second call-up, Rendon delivered. On the second pitch after Swisher’s error, Rendon smashed a fastball the opposite way into the Indians’ bullpen for his first career home run to cap a 7-6 win after ace Jordan Zimmermann couldn’t hold a 5-0 lead.
The Nationals called up Rendon, the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft, on June 4 from Class AAA Syracuse. He had been promoted there only three days before to play second base. But when struggling Danny Espinosa landed on the disabled list, they needed him to handle the majority of the second base duties in the majors.
Rendon, 23, had only eight games of professional baseball at second base at the time of his recall. Though he hadn’t played the position since Little League, he has handled himself well at second. At the plate, he has hit up to his draft pedigree, batting .406 (13 for 32) with five doubles and five RBI. He hit second for the first time on Saturday and is making a strong case to play second for the rest of the season.
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson knew the defensive miscue would hurt. “It’s going to haunt them,” Johnson thought to himself.
“Phew, I get another try,” Rendon was thinking as he ran back to the batter’s box after the uncaught popup. “At that point I was trying to put a good swing on the ball.”
Said Swisher: “That shouldn’t happen to us, but it did and it cost us the game. It was a little miscommunication.”
The win left the Nationals at 34-33, and Rendon’s play has provided a lift to a struggling offense.
The night before, Rendon’s brother, David, sent him a text message predicting Saturday’s home run.
“It felt good,” Rendon said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s actually funny. Got a little mullet power,” he added, as he reached to his hair to display his new haircut. “I gotta do a shoutout to [Adam LaRoche] for hooking me up with this awesome haircut.”
For the second time in two innings, the Nationals’ dugout erupted. After Zimmermann squandered a 5-0 lead, slumping pinch hitter Tracy drilled a high fastball from reliever Joe Smith over the center field fence to tie the score at 6 in the eighth. Tracy had been mired in a 0-for-21 slump, his last hit on May 24.
“It was great,” Tracy said. “It was a huge situation and a good matchup for me. After getting three at-bats yesterday, it goes a long way for a pinch hitter. To get in there and no matter what the result is it kinda gives you a little bit to go on the next day. That’s my job, and it paid off for me tonight getting those three yesterday.”
The Nationals tagged Indians starter Scott Kazmir for five runs in just 22 / 3 innings. They handed Zimmermann a 5-0 lead and, in rare form, he couldn’t hold it. Only twice this season has Zimmermann blown a lead, and none was larger than Saturday’s.
“I felt terrible all night,” the right-hander said. “Everything I threw was up in the zone, and I wasn’t getting ahead of guys. I was 1-0, 2-0 and obviously I had to come with the fastball then. Even when I did come with the fastball it was up in the zone. When those guys give me five runs like that, I have to be able to lock it down and get us the win. We got the win.”
Zimmermann lasted five innings but left trailing, 6-5. The Nationals’ bullpen provided four scoreless innings. Craig Stammen worked around two walks in the sixth. Rookie Ian Krol, plucked from Class AA Harrisburg the previous week, tossed a clean 12 / 3 innings. Drew Storen completed the eighth inning and Rafael Soriano worked the ninth for his 18th save.
Within three batters, the Nationals exposed Kazmir, a two-time all-star making a comeback after numerous injuries. He carried a 5.33 ERA into the game, and the first pitch Ryan Zimmerman saw he smashed into the power alley of right-center field. Five pitches later, Jayson Werth snapped a mini-slump of 0 for his past 11 with a solo homer into the same spot.
“We do those things and go up there a little more aggressive, I like that,” Johnson said.
Ian Desmond, who along with Zimmerman has handled left-handed pitching better than any other National, led off the next inning with a home run. The Nationals tacked on two more runs in the third, one on a double-play grounder by LaRoche and another on a wild pitch by reliever Matt Albers.
The Indians began chipping away at Zimmermann from the third inning on. It started with a run on a double and single. It ballooned to two more runs in the fourth when the Indians pounced on Zimmermann’s hard fastballs in the strike zone. Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds took Zimmermann deep back-to-back on 95 mph fastballs. After Reynolds swung at the pitch, Zimmermann looked straight down. He knew it was long gone.
Still clinging to a 5-3 lead in the fifth, Zimmermann folded. With two runners on base following singles, Swisher smacked an RBI single. After a mound visit by pitching coach Steve McCatty, Zimmermann surrendered a two-run double to Michael Brantley to put Cleveland up, 6-5.
Then came Tracy’s dramatics in the eighth, and Rendon’s shot in the ninth.
“You can’t give teams extra outs,” Tracy said. “They let a good hitter in Anthony have another strike, another out. And he made them pay. He’s a really good player and he’s going to be a really good player for a long time.”