Willie Ansley didn’t see the Washington Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Wednesday night’s Game 5 of the National League Division Series. He fell asleep in the fifth inning, or maybe the sixth, with the late start conflicting with his early-morning alarm.
“Eventually I woke up and looked at the score and thought, ‘Oh, my God, what happened?’ ” Ansley, Rendon’s childhood coach, remembered Thursday. “And then it was, ‘What did Anthony do?’ ”
Ansley pulled the highlights up on his phone. As it turned out — as it often turns out for Washington — Rendon did a lot. He scored the Nationals’ first run after doubling in the sixth. He hit the first of back-to-back solo homers off Clayton Kershaw in the eighth as Washington tied the score at 3. Then he revved a 10th-inning rally with a scorched double that stuck in the padding of the left field wall.
Everyone will remember the ending, the Howie Kendrick grand slam, the moment that pushed Washington into an NLCS that it now leads 2-0. But Rendon’s bat made the win possible. He has followed with two hits and three walks against the St. Louis Cardinals. The country is finally seeing a superstar. Ansley just sees a small kid grown up.
He has, after all, seen Rendon’s swing before. He has seen the muted stance. He has seen Rendon lift his front foot in the middle of the pitcher’s windup, no more than an inch off the ground, before dropping it as if the dirt is an eggshell he can’t break. Rendon learned it all from Ansley, when he was just a 9-year-old in Houston, and he has made only subtle changes since. His hands are a little lower while he waits to hit. His front leg is opened up a bit more this season.
Aside from that, details only Ansley and trained hitting coaches can spot, Rendon has stayed the same. The key to the 29-year-old’s offensive success is that he gets ready early. Or, as Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long puts it, “The thing with Anthony is that he’s never, ever late.”
“A lot of guys have that big leg kick, they are loading late and trying to time the pitcher, but I could never do that,” Rendon said of his approach. “For me, it was always really simple: Get your foot up, get it down in the same spot, do it all before the pitcher is releasing the ball, and that way you’re ready for anything. Then all you have to do is hit the ball.”
Rendon laughed at that last part. He knows that hitting 98-mph heat, or sharp breaking balls, is so far from easy. He just has a habit of making it look that way. And that’s really the root of what he does at the plate: He’s relaxed. He removes as many variables as possible. He gives himself every opportunity to adjust.
He often shrugs off questions about his swing or success at the plate, about the 34 home runs, 44 doubles, league-leading 126 RBI and 1.010 on-base-plus-slugging percentage that made him an MVP candidate this season. His swing has made him the heartbeat of the Nationals’ order and, soon, one of baseball’s most sought-after free agents. (Washington offered him a seven-year contract in the range of $210 million to $215 million in early September, but that is not expected to keep Rendon from exploring the market this offseason.) It also has made him one of a few reasons to believe Washington could beat the Cardinals in the NLCS — just two more wins now — and advance to the World Series.
Rendon, though, would rather explain it all with basic cliches. He says he just does the same thing every time. He says he’s just trying to hit it where the defense isn’t playing. He even suggested recently that his career-best season was largely a product of luck.
But there is science to the simplicity. It started when Rendon signed up for the Houston Thunder and Ansley became his coach. Ansley, who was in the Houston Astros’ organization in the early 1990s, took interest in how naturally Rendon used his wrists. Most kids didn’t know to snap them while making contact. Rendon did, before any real coaching, and that gave Ansley a good starting point. Ansley had a drill that put a metal pole behind Rendon’s back leg to force him to keep his swing tight. If Rendon didn’t go straight to the ball, he would smack the pole and a loud sound would ring in his ear. It didn’t take long before he was taking cuts as if the pole wasn’t there.
“It was sort of like playing a video game, even when he was that young,” said Ansley, who still coaches and works for a Houston-area school district. “You could tell him to do something, and he was so coordinated that he figured it out right away.”
He taught Rendon to be a “no-stride” hitter — the term for lifting your front foot and putting it down in the same spot — because he didn’t want to complicate hitting. He figured Rendon may add a leg kick or other flares when he got to high school or college, but Rendon never did. He stuck to the understated movement because it made him feel ahead of the pitcher. If his hands and weight are set before the pitch is released, he is ready for high velocity and can react to off-speed. That hasn’t changed.
Ansley remembers one summer tournament, 15 years ago, when he accused a teenage Rendon of trying too hard to blast homers. Rendon hit a bunch of pop flies to the warning track. Rendon denied it, smiling at Ansley, telling him that he wasn’t doing anything differently. But a confession arrived at another showcase the next weekend. Rendon went 14 for 14 across a handful of games on all line-drive singles and doubles. He heard Ansley and, without a word, proved that he could hit however he wanted. Ansley recalled leaning over to another coach and saying, “I’m not sure he’ll ever get out again.”
Now that same thought is passed around by Rendon’s coaches and teammates with the Nationals. Rendon is the same human metronome, his knees dipping into a crouch as the pitcher winds up, then his chest-high hands whipping so fast that his swing is a blur. Then he still doesn’t have much to say about it.
The tweaks are hardly noticeable from year to year. He lowered his hands last season to turn more grounders into line drives. He opened his stance this season, by just a few inches, to add power by giving his hips a chance to make a full turn during each swing. It led to a career high in home runs and his highest slugging percentage. It was evident Wednesday, when he ripped almost every pitch he swung at, when his calmness in big moments pushed the Nationals to a place they’ve never been. And it makes it easy to wonder what Rendon could do next.
“If everyone was capable, I’d use him as a template for how to hit,” Long said. “But there’s only one Anthony Rendon.”
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