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Anthony Rendon, a World Series champ with the Nats, now feels a duty to teach

On Friday night, Anthony Rendon faced the Nationals for the first time since departing in December 2019. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — In many ways, it felt like the past, like anywhere from 2013 to 2019. No, Anthony Rendon wasn’t feeling sentimental about facing the Washington Nationals, his former team, at Angel Stadium on Friday night. No, he hasn’t stayed in touch with many players who still play in D.C. And no, he didn’t have thoughts on a T-shirt giveaway with the silhouette of his eyebrows and bushy beard, so did anyone else have a question in his pregame news conference?

To himself, Rendon probably wondered why they had to put his face — or the hairy parts of his face, rather — on a shirt for thousands of fans. He has never been one for self-promotion. He sat down for this media session, squinted against the lights, found the few Washington reporters and muttered: “Who’s here? … Oh, no.” Then his beard rustled, revealing that big smile. His aversion to attention has always been part shtick, part personal code.

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But what has changed since he left the Nationals — since he signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels less than two months after winning a title — is how Rendon views himself in the clubhouse. Every day, he walks past a replica of the 2019 World Series trophy in his California home. He is 31 and has four kids now. It all comes with more responsibility, whether he likes that or not.

“It’s a constant reminder, and it’s something spectacular,” Rendon said of the trophy. “You want to hold on to that. You want to remember. And now, I could bring that here. Unfortunately, a lot of those guys in there haven’t won. I think that’s a part of what I need to do now these next four to five years. I need to help teach this organization, help teach these guys how to win games. How do we get there?

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be on that team when we were in the playoffs almost every year, or maybe every other year. We had a lot of older guys. We were the oldest team in 2019. I just shut up and watched them the whole time. Now if I’m one of those older guys, which I unfortunately am now, that’s my job. That’s my duty, to teach. … ’Cause I’m not going to be here forever. So when I leave, hopefully that’s going to stick in their minds. That’s what’s going to matter most, not what I do on the field.”

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Here was Rendon at his most publicly introspective. In a few hours, he went 0 for 4 with a pair of strikeouts. In the bigger picture, his stint with the Angels has not gone as planned, with injuries limiting his starts and production. Yet he’s no longer the centerpiece of a team’s short- and long-term vision. Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani fill that part with the Angels. Rendon is the star-sized complement and veteran who has seen the top.

Once a premier hitter, Rendon could certainly get back there. He has three homers and five doubles in the first month of the season. His .212 batting average, .330 on-base percentage and .376 slugging percentage are uncharacteristic. His 15 walks, though, make him an above-average hitter by some advanced metrics. He’s learning how to swing, field and throw a bit differently after having season-ending hip surgery in July. No wonder he feels old.

“I feel like I’m getting there,” Rendon said Friday. “Getting used to that new body, that new hip, the new legs.”

Does he actually have a new hip?

“It feels like it,” he answered, grinning widely again. “A lot of stuff went on in there. From nothing showing up in the MRI [exam] to a lot of stuff being taken out and added in. It’s kind of a big change.”

Of course, Rendon knows all about those now. For seven seasons, he played for the Nationals, the team that drafted him out of Rice University in 2011. For the final two, he was as consistent as any player in the sport, twice leading the league with 44 doubles and knocking in 126 runners in 2019. He went west because Washington decided to invest in starting pitching instead of making him a competitive offer in free agency. Stephen Strasburg, you may remember, signed for an identical seven years and $245 million just days before Rendon landed with the Angels. Rendon’s contract with Los Angeles also included zero payment deferrals. The Nationals wouldn’t accommodate that ask.

When Rendon returns to D.C., he may get nostalgic about the title run, the roots of his career and times past. Friday wasn’t the night for that. Saturday or Sunday won’t be either.

Pressed on his favorite memories of that magical year in Washington, Rendon joked he couldn’t share any to a room full of reporters. On the field, and perhaps at the top of mind for fans, there were clutch homers in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, then Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. There was Rendon delivering in late inning after late inning, looking as if he could yawn in the box while pressure spiked. To Rendon, though, what seems to stick out most is what it took to win.

“I think I played 118 straight after I came back from the [injured list early in the season in 2019],” Rendon recalled, doing loose math in his head. “Trea [Turner] played 107 straight after the [broken] finger. And [Juan] Soto played like 98 straight. We were just asking for days off. But we were scratching to try to get into the playoffs, and they’re like: ‘No, no. You’re good!’

“We just kept going out there. Maybe I’m feeling the effects of it now.”