Saturday afternoon, Anthony Rendon strolled toward the Nationals dugout to retrieve his bat for batting practice. Standing by the helmet rack, General Manager Mike Rizzo hollered, “How we doing?”
“Good,” Rendon said, smiling. “I’m always good, Mike.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Rizzo said.
“I’m alive,” Rendon said, his smile growing wider. “I’m breathing.”
Nationals coaches, officials and teammates believe Rendon’s even keel may be his most important tool, even more crucial than his fluid swing. He never changed his demeanor or his habits in May, when he went 12 for 74 and his batting average dropped from .316 to a season low of .255 on Friday.
Rendon may be pulling out his slump. In the Nationals’ 5-2 victory Sunday, Rendon roped an RBI triple off the right-center field fence and continued a recent trend by drawing two walks. He reached base twice Saturday night, too, hitting a single and drawing a walk. Rendon said it’s just two games, nothing to get excited about. But then, he rarely gets excited about anything.
“You got to stay positive throughout the whole thing,” Rendon said. “It’s pretty tough, especially when it happens for a good amount of time. But you got to stay right with the man upstairs, and you got to get through it.”
Rendon crushed the ball Sunday, launching two curveballs foul into the upper deck, “which tells me he’s staying on it,” Manager Matt Williams said. The walks, though, may have been most telling. In his first 40 games, Rendon drew eight walks. In the past nine games, he has earned nine walks.
“When I do draw walks, it means I’m seeing the ball a little bit better,” Rendon said.
Walking has been the one skill he hasn’t shown to his fullest extent while in the majors. In his junior season at Rice, Rendon became the first college player since 1998 to draw 80 walks. In a brief minor league career, Rendon drew 55 walks in 326 plate appearances, a 16.9-percent walk rate.
So he can punch up a high on-base percentage. In the majors, though, Rendon has only walked in 48 of his 610 plate appearances, or 7.9 percent.
“The more I grow accustomed to the game and the more they grow accustomed to me, I’m pretty sure I’ll draw a little bit more walks,” Rendon said. “In college and the minors, I was kind of ‘that guy,’ I guess you could say. Up here, I’m just a little guy again. I’m pretty sure they want to pitch to me rather than pitching to Jayson” Werth.
“I don’t think he’s being more selective now than he has been over the last year-plus,” Williams said. “He’s a good hitter. He understands the strike zone. He understands what he can and can’t hit. The major league level is a lot different than the minor leagues, too. In college and even in the minor leagues with the reputation he’s got, there’s a lot of times they don’t want to pitch to him. Here, he’s got a big hairy guy standing on deck.”
>>> First baseman Adam LaRoche went 1 for 4 in his return from the disabled list, his first major league action since May 9. He said his quadriceps muscle, which was strained, held up perfectly.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” LaRoche said. “It felt back to normal. It’s great to be back out there. It really is. I’ve been sitting for long enough. It’s fun to be back. Timing was a little off. I could tell it had been a few days, but that’ll get there. A day game against [Francisco] Liriano, you can’t expect to be great.”
>>> In the seventh inning Sunday, the Nationals added to their lead on an unconventional play. With Werth on third and LaRoche on first, Ian Desmond whacked a flyball to the right field corner. Josh Harrison dove for the ball on the warning track dirt, and when he held the ball aloft, umpires called it a catch. Werth scored on an apparent sacrifice fly, and LaRoche scurried back to first.
But wait: didn’t Harrison show the ball with his bare hand? Williams challenged the ruling, and the replay revealed that the ball shook loose from Harrison’s glove, and he plucked it off the dirt before he raised it.
Harrison had clearly not caught the ball, but the umpires still faced the tricky decision of where to place the runners. LaRoche had been standing a few steps from second, and had the play originally been ruled safe, he likely would have made third. The umpiring crew watching in New York put LaRoche at second and Desmond at first.
Williams felt LaRoche could have made third base easily, but his argument with the umpires did not do any good – it wasn’t even their decision, he learned. It cost the Nationals a run when Tyler Moore smashed a would-be sac fly to center.